‘No Question About It: HealthCare.gov Is a Wreck.’

by Charles C. W. Cooke

The uselessness of the Healthcare.gov website has surprised even the most ardent critics of the law itself. ArsTechnica reports the latest disaster:

Amid all the attention, bugs, and work happening at Healthcare.gov in light of the Affordable Care Act, potential registrants talking to phone support today have been told that all user passwords are being reset to help address the site’s login woes. And the tech supports behind Healthcare.gov will be asking more users to act in the name of fixing the site, too. According to registrants speaking with Ars, individuals whose logins never made it to the site’s database will have to re-register using a different username, as their previously chosen names are now stuck in authentication limbo.

At first, there was confusion as to why this might be. Had the system encrypted passwords that it couldn’t then decrypt? Had a bunch of servers gone down? Perhaps the database had been compromised? Now, it appears that this may be the product of the system’s being seriously reworked. In a CBS interview, a computer expert who is sympathetic to the law argues:

“It wasn’t designed well, it wasn’t implemented well, and it looks like nobody tested it,” said Luke Chung, an online database programmer.

Chung supports the new health care law but said it was not the demand that is crashing the site. He thinks the entire website needs a complete overhaul.

“It’s not even close. It’s not even ready for beta testing for my book. I would be ashamed and embarrassed if my organization delivered something like that,” he said.

There are new reports that some people who tried to register but were blocked from enrolling were asked to reset their passwords Tuesday and that more people will be asked to do the same.

Chung told Crawford that this change is a clue that they are making major changes to the system’s foundation. He also said it is a sign of progress and that they finally have the people who know what needs to be done to fix the problems.

The tech website InfoWorld is just as brutal, concluding that there is “no question about it: HealthCare.gov is a wreck.” Reuters, meanwhile, gets more specific:

One possible cause of the problems is that hitting “apply” on HealthCare.gov causes 92 separate files, plug-ins and other mammoth swarms of data to stream between the user’s computer and the servers powering the government website, said Matthew Hancock, an independent expert in website design. He was able to track the files being requested through a feature in the Firefox browser.

He said because so much traffic was going back and forth between the users’ computers and the server hosting the government website, it was as if the system was attacking itself.

Could there be a better analogy for the law than that?

What’s particularly amusing is the gap between the promises and the reality. Back in June, the Atlantic’s Alex Howard penned a fawning piece about the coming Healthcare.gov website, the code of which was to be “Developed by the People and for the People, Released Back to the People,” which would be a “huge win for the American people.” ”How a website is built or designed,” Howard wrote,

may seem mundane to many people, but when the site in question is focused upon such an important function, what it looks like and how it works matter.

I’ll say. Parts of the piece, which self-consciously tries to make goverment web design cool, are just extremely embarassing. This, for example:

“It’s fast, built in static HTML, completely scalable and secure,” said Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer of HHS, in an interview. “It’s basically setting up a web server. That’s the beauty of it.” What makes such an ambitious experiment in social coding more unusual is that the larger political and health-care policy context that it’s being been built within is more fraught with tension and scrutiny than any other arena in the federal government.

And this:

“The work that they’re doing is amazing,” said Sivak, “like how they organize their sprints and code. It’s incredible what can happen when you give a team of talented developers and managers and let them go.”

And especially this:

“We started talking to people about a better way, including people who had just come off the Obama campaign,” he said. “I learned about the ground they had broken for the political space, from A/B testing to lightweight infrastructure, and started reading about where all that came from. We started thinking about Jekyll as a platform and using Prose.io.”

Howard noted in his paen that:

Government websites have not, historically, been sterling examples of design or usability. Unfortunately, in many cases, they’re also built at great expense, given the dependence of government agencies on contractors and systems integrators, and use technologies that are years behind the rest of the web.

This one was to be different. But then Obamacare was supposed to lower premiums for absolutely everybody without interfering with their current insurance or affecting the relationship they had with their doctor, too . . .

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