Politics & Policy

Can This Website Really Be Saved?

Obama’s “tech surge” fixers say all will be well in five weeks, but IT experts are dubious.

So we now have a date. “We’re confident by the end of November, Healthcare.gov will be smooth for a vast majority of users,” Jeff Zients, the point man in charge of the “tech surge” the White House is unleashing to fix the site’s problems, told reporters last week. “The Healthcare.gov site is fixable. It will take a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed.”

But the commitments might hinge on what the word “fixable” really means. It could mean that the final product will be a stripped-down version that won’t have the functionality promised of the original website. But, in the meantime, the mainstream media will probably be placated by White House assurances that the “best and brightest” in the IT sector are working on the project.

#ad#But who are these geniuses? HHS won’t say which individuals, aside from Zients, are part of the “tech surge.” It recalls the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones and Brody ask Major Eaton about the fate of the ark.

Brody: The ark is a source of unspeakable power, and it has to be researched.

Major Eaton: And it will be, I assure you, Dr. Brody, Dr. Jones. We have top men working on it right now.

Indiana: Who?

Major Eaton: Top . . . men.

The HHS stonewall has led the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, a supporter of Obamacare, to wonder whether “the scope of the surge is less impressive, and more insider-focused, than the administration is implying.”

Numerous IT experts have expressed worry, including some who, according to USA Today, concluded that “the federal health care exchange was built using ten-year-old technology that may require constant fixes and updates for the next six months and the eventual overhaul of the entire system.”

The administration may also know less than it is claiming to know. It is astonishing that Zients, after only three days on the job, could make the assurances he did without having conducted a full technical review of the system, including requirements, architecture, design, and implementation. The scope of Healthcare.gov is staggering. Its 500 million lines of code dwarf the size of almost all known IT projects. According to CNN Money, it took just half a million lines of code to send the Curiosity rover to Mars. Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system has some 80 million lines of code. And a typical online-banking system might feature between 75 million and 100 million lines. 

Whoever is leading the “tech surge” will have to pore over millions of lines of code to see why people are blocked from completing applications, and why errors and gobbledygook are corrupting the personal data the site does manage to send to insurance companies. Just getting a handle on what needs to be fixed would normally take about five weeks, but the administration claims to have completed its review in days. So far that appears to be the only thing associated with the website that has been finished in record time.

Josh Barro of Business Insider is suspicious about all of HHS’s assurances. “The administration is still behaving like it is trying to get Obamacare enacted, and therefore its top public relations task is to bury negative stories about the law and emphasize the upside,” he wrote. “There’s no reason not to level with the public right now, unless the truth is so horrible and the website is so un-fixable that Obama administration officials can’t bring themselves to discuss the matter publicly.”

#page#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).”

#ad#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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