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Can This Website Really Be Saved?
Obama’s “tech surge” fixers say all will be well in five weeks, but IT experts are dubious.

Mr. Fix-It? Jeff Zeints has been tasked to lead the "tech surge" on HealthCare.gov.

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John Fund

Bruce Webster, an IT expert with 30 years of experience consulting with dozens of private companies, says that in restructuring a massively troubled project such as Healthcare.gov, there are typically four approaches:

1) adding time to the schedule;

2) reducing (or accepting reduced) functionality — i.e., scaling back on the features and capabilities of the system;

3) reducing (or accepting reduced) performance, such as the number of simultaneous users, the speed of response, and so on;

4) reducing (or accepting reduced) quality, that is, allowing known defects to persist while documenting workarounds.

“If the administration really wants to declare this ‘fixed’ by the end of November, they will likely do it by reducing functionality, performance, and possibly even quality,” Webster says. “The push to end of November represents some adding of time to the schedule; the qualifier ‘vast majority of users’ suggests both reduced functionality and possible additional schedule relief (for instance, some users won’t be handled until later).”

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In an effort to convince Americans they can still sign up for Obamacare right now, the president urged people to mail in paper applications, find an Obamacare “navigator” to assist them, or apply by answering questions over a phone helpline.

But all of those methods will still require that the data from the applications be “entered into the same lousy website that is causing the problems in the first place,” as Politico put it. “And the people processing the paper and calls don’t have any cyber secret passage to duck around that.”

Ben Simo, a former president of the Association for Software Testing, says he now has “zero trust” in Healthcare.gov. He had started an application on the site for a family member but abandoned the application, he wrote on his blog. The status screen showed that the application was left “in progress,” but then he received a notification that his application had been processed and his eligibility results were available. “How is it that my application was processed when I did not submit the application?” he asked, adding:

I had explicitly selected the option at the end of the application stating that I do not agree to the terms for submitting the application. However, it appears that the system ignored my telling it that I do not want them to pull the necessary info to process the application and processed my application anyway. Not only did they process an application I did not submit, the letter says they referred my application to a state agency — a state agency with which I did not authorize them to share any information.

Such problems “may represent humans treating intentionally abandoned applications as ones that stalled due to technical problems and are finishing them to ‘help’ people out,” says Bruce Webster, the IT consultant. “Plus, the administration is now touting application numbers, so this may represent a behind-the-scenes effort to drive those numbers up.”

If so, “clients” such as Ben Simo are less than amused. “The decision letter I received says that I have ten days to appeal any decisions or I will be ineligible for coverage in the future,” Simo says. “Now, they’ve put me in a position that I have to get Healthcare.gov and a state agency to collaborate to withdraw the application I never submitted.”

We are on the verge of seeing dark catch-phrases such as “Kafkaesque” and “Catch-22” recede in favor of a new one to describe bureaucratic nightmares: “Healthcare.gov.” A true Halloween horror story.

The tragedy is that there really was a path not taken in designing the website. “We would have done this” for a fraction of the price, “and it would have been working perfectly,” Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Bay Area global cloud provider Salesforce.com, told Politico. “But we were turned away.”

Even veterans of Obama’s campaigns, which garnered such praise for their tech-savvy approach, were ignored. Clay Johnson, a founder of Blue State Digital, the company that developed Obama’s 2008 campaign website, turned down a chance to work on Healthcare.gov last year, during the time he was a Presidential Innovation Fellow. “It was a project I wanted to steer clear of,” he told the New York Times.

So we now have a choice. We can believe the Obama administration’s happy talk that the website will be “fixed” — whatever that means — in five weeks, or we can look to the general consensus of outside IT experts who are highly dubious. Given the administration’s track record and lack of transparency to date, it’s not even a close call as to who has the greater credibility. 

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.



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