HealthCare.gov bug fixes underway
- By Adam Mazmanian
- Oct 07, 2013
HealthCare.gov, the online portal many Americans will use to get information about and enroll in insurance under the 2010 health care law, got some under-the-hood tweaks over the weekend.
The system launched with reports of long waits, delays in service and repeated error messages. It is still not entirely clear what went wrong with the Oct. 1 launch of HealthCare.gov, but experts and developers blame the complex web of connections that bring together information from state and federal sources to determine whether an individual qualifies for coverage and at what rate. The portal is for the 36 states that have not established their own exchanges.
Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the program, said that fixes include more capacity for users, new pathways to move users through the interface, updated software to handle higher volumes of queries, and moving an over-stressed component of the system from a virtualized server to a physical system.
CMS didn't spell out the nature of the problems, but they don't appear to have to do with the design and architecture of the HealthCare.gov site itself, which didn't stall or crash under the crush of new visitors. Users encountered more problems when trying to create accounts and purchase insurance, according to complaints directed at the @HeathCareGov Twitter account and reported in the media.
This suggests problems with the back end components of the system that are much larger and more complex than anything on the content-driven HealthCare.Gov website. The Federally Facilitated Marketplace that creates user accounts and processes transactions was built by CGI Federal, and the data hub that brings together user information from disparate government databases was built by Quality Software Services Inc.
"Checking users' eligibility and filing their applications requires integration with a separate and more complex set of systems -- ones that have little to do with your web browser. Fixing those sorts of bottlenecks can be easy or difficult; the boring truth is that it's hard to say definitively from outside the system," Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation wrote in a blog post.
Making the federal system, the 16 state-based exchanges and state Medicaid and Medicare systems operate together, along with a host of databases from the IRS to the Veterans Administration to the Department of Homeland Security, is "a massive and significant IT undertaking," said Clay Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the software company Department of Better Technology.
"I have no idea how the back end of the system works. I can tell you it is a tough job, and leaves room for a number of different bottlenecks," Johnson said.
Flaws in the back-end of the system are providing fuel for critics who worried that the data hubs would be an inviting target for scammers and hackers. "The people behind these technical failures are the same people expected to protect Americans' personal information in the Obamacare data hub. If they can't get this right, how can they be expected to secure that information?" Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies, said in a statement.
CMS isn't offering comment on the details of how the system works and contractors are deflecting requests for comment from reporters, so media tracking the story have had to rely on the speculation of experts and unofficial reports from insurance companies.
While the administration is reporting heavy use, including 8.6 million unique visitors in the first week of operation, 225,000 requests for live online chats, and 406,000 call center calls, there's no official word on how many users have successfully created accounts or purchased coverage. An article in the Wall Street Journal reported the number of people who have begun to shop for coverage with established accounts is "likely in the low thousands."
Johnson suggested the HealthCare.Gov system will be eventually work as well as comparable online commercial services, which are often prone to errors that can be traced to flaws in disparate legacy systems and databases. "This is a website that has to scale. It may not be fully possible without a few weeks or months more of work on back-end systems to make it scalable," Johnson said.
The opening day hiccups with HealthCare.gov are a symptom of a larger problem in federal procurement, Johnson said. Big government IT projects, he said, "are doomed by being billion-dollar projects – huge and unmanageable undertakings that people are bad at managing." The problem is that the underlying problem is a lot less compelling than critiquing a flawed web service, or for that matter the policy that required it to be built.
"There's a word you can say to make someone stop paying attention to what you are saying," Johnson said. "That word is 'procurement.'"
Adam Mazmanian is a staff writer covering Congress, the FCC and other key agencies. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.