USA Today reports today on the Obamacare exchange’s IT challenges, in which the federal government’s chief technology officer suggests that the problems are due to higher-than-expected volume rather than poorly designed sites. Why was the volume higher than expected? They had a rather odd benchmark:
U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said the government expected HealthCare.gov to draw 50,000 to 60,000 simultaneous users, but instead it has drawn as many as 250,000 at a time since it launched Oct. 1. . . .
The administration built the site’s capacity based partly on the all-time high of 30,000 simultaneous users for Medicare.gov, an existing site where senior citizens can buy or renew prescription-drug plans under Medicare Part D, Park said. Its theoretical maximum capacity hasn’t been disclosed.
That is, the administration thought Medicare.gov, a site only used by senior citizens that, with the possible exception of the launch of Medicare Part D in 2006, has never come in for the kind of deluge of sign-ups that could be expected for new Obamacare plans, would be a good yardstick to use. If we can just beat that by 65 to 100 percent, apparently, they thought they’d be safe.
A Bush administration official thought that, even if they somehow thought this would be like launching Medicare Part D, they got it wrong:
“Whoever thought it would draw 60,000 people wasn’t reading the administration’s press releases,” said David Brailer, former national coordinator of health care information technology. “The Medicare Part D site was supposed to have 20,000 simultaneous users and was (built for) 150,000, and that was back when computing was done on an abacus. It isn’t that hard.”
Further, the federal government’s claim that the problems the site’s encountered can be chalked up to “volume” (“Take away the volume and it works,” your great American CTO said) don’t jibe with a lot of reporting on the subject: The Journal has a story today, for instance, with tech experts saying that the architecture of the website is messy and inefficient. The Atlantic ran a piece back in June on the team behind the federal exchange site (which is being used in about half the 50 states, which have decided not to set up their own exchanges), which suggests that the site would be much more innovative than your average federal website, but spends a lot of time explaining why it’ll be more open-source and useful for other applications rather than just better. It’s an interesting read.