HHS Probably Can’t Fix It by the End of November, and That’s Probably Too Late Anyway

Here’s the new promise:

“By the end of November, HealthCare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users,” Jeffrey Zients, President Obama’s appointee said Friday. “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.”

Five weeks.

In the past days, some tech experts outside of government offered estimates that fixing the exchange websites would require considerably more time.

USA Today:

The federal health care exchange was built using 10-year-old technology that may require constant fixes and updates for the next six months and the eventual overhaul of the entire system, technology experts told USA TODAY.

From top health-care market analyst Robert Laszewski’s interview with Daryl Chapman, a veteran data-systems expert:

RL: So, how long will it take to fix the 834 problem such that we have an acceptable error rate?

DC: At least a year.

From PBS:

BILL CURTIS, CAST Software: Well, it’s the right direction, and they have got an awful lot of money to fix things, but there’s an awful lot of fixes ahead of them. It’s going to take quite a lot of time to fix the entire system. It’s not just a web interface problem. There are a lot of problems we’re seeing behind the web, behind the interface.

Yuval Levin, after talking to sources in the insurance industry:

If the problems now plaguing the system are not resolved by mid-November and the flow of enrollments at that point looks like it does now, the prospects for the first year of the exchanges will be in very grave jeopardy. Some large advertising and outreach campaigns are also geared to that crucial six-week period around Thanksgiving and Christmas, so if the sites are not functional, all of that might not happen — or else might be wasted. If that’s what the late fall looks like, the administration might need to consider what one of the people I spoke with described as “unthinkable options” regarding the first year of the exchanges . . . 

No one wants to say how long it might take, and no one would share with me what estimates they might be getting from their contractors (whom they no longer trust anyway), but there has so far been relatively little progress and it seems like everyone involved is preparing for a process that will take months, not weeks.

And from Bruce Webster, NR cruiser and increasingly frequent Morning Jolt contributor:

I see so many large IT projects that never stabilize — lots of work is done, lots of bugs are fixed, and yet it never gets any closer to being able to go live. One of the most important metrics (and one of the few useful ones) towards the end of a software project is the find/fix ratio, that is, the number of bugs you are finding each week vs. the number you are fixing or deferring. If that ratio is greater than or equal to 1.0 — if you are finding as many or more new bugs each week than you are fixing or deferring, you’ll never ship. And if the ratio is less than 1.0, then you can start to project it out on a timeline and figure roughly when you’ll be ready to release the system.

And this is why — as I discuss in this extract from a document I wrote 15 years ago about software quality assurance – you need to have strict controls on what changes are allowed to be made to the source code through the alpha and beta phases just before release. If you do not handle this process rigorously, you’ll just keep oscillating for weeks, months, or even years. I’ve seen it happen time and again.

My father — who worked in electronics in the Navy for nearly 30 years — used to say to all us kids when we were growing up, “If you don’t have time to do it right, will you have time to do it over?” That is exactly the problem that the Obama Administration caused for itself (“We needed five years but only had two”), and it is exactly the problem that they face going forward.

Also note that “end of November” is a bit later than when some analysts had put the drop-dead deadline for fixing it without major, lasting damage to Obamacare going forward:

Bloomberg News:

“If they can’t get it fixed for most people by mid-November, they start raising questions about who’s going to enroll and concerns about adverse enrollment,” said Gail Wilensky, a former administrator of HCFA and now a senior fellow at Project Hope at Center for Health Affairs.


But if federal officials can’t get the new online insurance marketplace running smoothly by mid-November, the problems plaguing the three-week-old website could become a far bigger threat to the success of the health law, hampering enrollment and fueling opponents’ calls to delay implementation, analysts say.

CBS News:

“I think the damage was done,” Joseph Antos, a health policy expert from the American Enterprise Institute, told CBSNews.com. “It really does startle me — I never would have guessed two-and-a-half weeks ago we’d be where we are today.”

Antos contends the “tech surge” that the administration has deployed has until around mid-November to create a “tolerable” shopping experience for people before the website’s flaws take a true toll on enrollment.

NBC News:

The Obama White House has about a month — so until Thanksgiving — to find a solution before the system is negatively impacted.

Kaiser Health News:

They’ve got a few weeks. But if federal officials can’t get the new online insurance marketplace running smoothly by mid-November, the problems plaguing the three-week-old website could become a far bigger threat to the success of the health law, hampering enrollment and fueling opponents’ calls to delay implementation, say analysts.

The Obama administration is way, way, way up a river, with no paddle.

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