The other day, I wrote that long wait times are not the only issue with the Obamacare website, highlighting my skepticism of the administration’s claims that high volume was to blame for all the glitches in the system.
It turns out that Reuters news agency spoke with five technology experts who expressed similar skepticism and question the architecture of the Obamacare website.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversaw development of the [Obamacare] site, declined to make any of its IT experts available for interviews. CGI Group Inc, the Canadian contractor that built HealthCare.gov, is “declining to comment at this time,” said spokeswoman Linda Odorisio.
Five outside technology experts interviewed by Reuters, however, say they believe flaws in system architecture, not traffic alone, contributed to the problems.
For instance, when a user tries to create an account on HealthCare.gov, which serves insurance exchanges in 36 states, it prompts the computer to load an unusually large amount of files and software, overwhelming the browser, experts said.
If they are right, then just bringing more servers online, as officials say they are doing, will not fix the site.
“Adding capacity sounds great until you realize that if you didn’t design it right that won’t help,” said Bill Curtis, chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm, and director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality. “The architecture of the software may limit how much you can add on to it. I suspect they’ll have to reconfigure a lot of it.”
Many users also struggled with a “glitch” in which they were presented with empty drop-down lists for security hint selections. I experienced the issue myself on the first ten or so attempts at creating a login account. One technical expert who spoke to Reuters also doubted that issue was caused by traffic alone.
Many users experienced problems involving security questions they had to answer in order to create an account on HealthCare.gov. No questions appeared in the boxes, or an error message said they were using the same answers for different questions when they were not.
The government official blamed the glitch on massive traffic, but outside experts said it likely reflected programming choices as well.
“It’s a bug in the system, a coding problem,” said Jyoti Bansal, chief executive of AppDynamics, a San Francisco-based company that builds products that monitor websites and identify problems.
Other programmers also shared the same assessment on that issue, as was explained in a Bloomberg article to which I linked in my post the other day.
Another point I mentioned in that post was that of load and stress testing – the claim that the demand on the system was unexpected didn’t seem to me an acceptable excuse, as there are standards that developers follow in determining how to test for load on the system. One of the technical experts who spoke to Reuters also spoke with the Washington Post. He elaborated on the standard approach that developers follow in capacity planning and testing, when asked whether overwhelming traffic seemed a good explanation from the Obama administration for all of the problems.
That seems like not a very good excuse to me. In sites like these there’s a very standard approach to capacity planning. You start with some basic math. Like, in this case, you look at all the federal states and how many uninsured people they have. Out of those you think, maybe 10 percent would log in in the first day. But you model for the worst case, and that’s how you come up with your peak of how many people could try to do the same thing at the same time.
Before you launch you run a lot of load testing with twice the load of the peak , so you can go through and remove glitches. I’m a very very big supporter of the health-care act, but I don’t buy the argument that the load was too unexpected.
While healthcare.gov was scheduled to be down this weekend for maintenance to try and correct some of the rollout glitches, it remains to be seen whether programmers are addressing more than just capacity issues.
Meanwhile, Obama continued to claim this weekend that the demand was beyond what they expected and once again focused only on the wait times. Further, he couldn’t provide any numbers in relation to how many have actually been able to successfully sign up for health insurance.
President Obama doesn’t know how many people have signed up for health care insurance since the marketplaces created by his health care law opened on Oct. 1, he said in an interview released Saturday.
Obama’s comments came in a sit-down with the Associated Press, as he encouraged people trying to register to keep trying. Those who want insurance “definitely shouldn’t give up,” he said. There’s been skepticism from Republicans and the press about whether the White House really doesn’t know how many people have enrolled this week.
Obama said that early interest in the exchanges far exceeded the government’s expectations for the first few days, but “folks are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times.” HealthCare.gov is down for the weekend to give the administration uninterrupted time to improve the site.
Most people are willing to wait through glitches in a system when it’s a product or service they really want. But in the instance of health insurance, you’re talking about a product that people are now mandated by the government to purchase. Add to that, some who have been able to make it through the process are finding that the Affordable Care Act rates aren’t so affordable after all.
Building the public’s confidence is key in this case, and while there’s still time for issues to be fixed, confidence won’t come even from supporters unless you’re up front about the issues.
Set aside the “Republican critics” most media would like to dismiss; people of all political stripes, including some who actually supported the Affordable Care Act, are expressing disappointment and skepticism after the Obamacare website rollout.
Unfortunately, the shutdown has all but consumed the news cycle since the rollout of Healthcare.gov. While some media outlets have focused on the long wait times, very few are actually breaking down the glitches and testing the administration’s claims that volume is solely to blame.
By the way, the account I created to try and just look at the system is still stuck in Zombieland.