More Design Flaws and Software Defects for Obamacare Exchanges

by Veronique de Rugy

The Obama administration is finally acknowledging what many people who have tried to enroll in the health-care exchanges have known for six days: There are serious problems with the exchanges’ websites. Here is the Wall Street Journal on the issue:

“We can do better and we are working around the clock to do so,” said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services. The government is making software and hardware changes to smooth the process of creating accounts needed to gain access to the marketplace, federal officials said.

The website is troubled by coding problems and flaws in the architecture of the system, according to insurance-industry advisers, technical experts and people close to the development of the marketplace.

Among the technical problems thwarting consumers, according to some of those people, is the system to confirm the identities of enrollees. Troubles in the system are causing crashes as users try to create accounts, the first step before they can apply for coverage.

The main problem, according to the Journal, seems to be a “sloppy software foundation”:

Information technology experts who examined the website at the request of The Wall Street Journal said the site appeared to be built on a sloppy software foundation. Such a hastily constructed website may not have been able to withstand the online demand last week, they said.

Engineers at Web-hosting company Media Temple Inc. found a glut of stray software code that served no purpose they could identify. They also said basic Web-efficiency techniques weren’t used, such as saving parts of the website that change infrequently so they can be loaded more quickly. Those factors clog the website’s plumbing, Media Temple said.

The identity-checking foul-ups are also triggering problems for state-run exchanges, which rely on the federal system. The problem caused delays last week for users of MNsure, Minnesota’s exchange, as they waited for federal confirmation to create their accounts, said April Todd-Malmlov, MNsure’s executive director. She said the issue in her state was largely resolved by Friday.

Now, reading this article and many others, it’s hard to tell whether the issues are easy to address or will be enduring. We know that the administration shut down the sites for part of the weekend to try to fix the problems, but it seems that it only made marginal progress. So it seems there’s a non-negligible chance the problems are more than superficial and will get in the way of people enrolling. Without making too much out of this, the fact that the site’s software foundation was sloppy doesn’t speak well of the whole project. Do we really believe that everything is ready to run smoothly if the only part visible to the public so far is dysfunctional? Maybe there was something to the idea that Obamacare just wasn’t ready and should have been delayed.

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