ObamaCare Is Working Fine (As Long As No One Tries to Use It)

In an
for USA Today published yesterday evening,
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius touted recent
progress the Obamacare tech team has made on repair efforts to the
health law’s troubled online insurance portal, HealthCare.gov.

“The site is running faster, it’s responding quicker and it can
handle larger amounts of traffic,” Sebelius wrote.

But please, she gently suggested, try to avoid rushing to
experience the improvements all at once. Even after saying that
“the system is now working smoothly for the vast majority of
users,” Sebelius also warned that those who prefer to shop online
“may want to visit HealthCare.gov in off-peak hours when there is
less traffic.”

So the online experience is working fine as long as no one*
actually uses it?

Some improvements do seem to have been made, but given the near
total failure of the initial rollout, that’s a pretty low bar. And
even still, it seems pretty clear that the new and improved
HealthCare.gov still has a few kinks to work out, even on the
front-end user experience that was supposed to be significantly

ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein
chronicled his own test
of the reformed website this morning
and found “long delays loading pages, an endless circle of tasks
(some already completed) and ultimately an error message.” His
test-run ended with an unhelpful, grammatically incorrect apology,
“Sorry theres [sic] a problem with our system,” and a
recommendation that he log out and try again in 30 minutes. Others,

including Reason‘s Nick Gillespie
, are reporting
in their attempts to use the site. 

Maybe these folks are just part of the minority of users still
expected to experience trouble. More likely, however, is that the
front end of the site still has some significant problems. And
remember: That’s the portion of the system that the tech repair
team prioritized, and was by now supposed to be working
smoothly for the vast majority of users.

With 30 to 40 percent of the site, including critical insurer
payment systems, yet to be completed and tested, you can bet these
problems will continue. Not only because it clearly takes longer
than expected to excise flaws from the system, but because
lingering problems with the portion that’s already been built will
take time and energy away from constructing and testing the
portions of the system that have yet to be put in place. The
administration delayed the Spanish language version of site from
its initial planned opening, and just last week announced
that the federally run small business exchange that was
supposed to open last month would be
postponed by a year
. The team working on Obamacare is already
reported to be working around the clock on repairs; even if they
don’t burn out from the weeks of long hours, it’s inevitable that
building additional functionality and putting it through the paces
will fall by the wayside if the existing troubles aren’t fixed.

Even now, just a day after the relaunch, it seems likely that
the performance goals the administration was shooting for have not
actually been hit: On a press call this afternoon, a spokesperson
for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid
away from the 50,000 simultaneous users
 figure that
officials provided just yesterday.

If the administration does eventually meet its performance
goals, however, it remains to be seen whether they will be enough.
In the days following the launch of the exchanges, federal
officials falsely claimed that the sole cause of the system’s
dysfunction was too much traffic. But as we get closer to the
deadline for signing up for coverage that begins next year, traffic
loads could add to the system’s problems. The rebuilt system is
supposed to be able to handle about 50,000 concurrent users, but
when the site launched, there were as many as 250,000 people trying
to log on all at once. If a flood of users does try to sign up in
the next few weeks, that could be a problem. 

So if demand for enrollment is high, the system is liable to
crash again, resulting in more of the kind of frustrations we’ve
already seen. On the other hand, if demand is low, then that
suggests a different set of problems—minimal interest in the
insurance being sold on the exchanges, and, as a result, smaller
risk pools made up of sicker individuals who will be more expensive
to insure. Either way, in other words, it won’t really

*No, I don’t literally mean “no one.” 

from Hit & Run http://reason.com/blog/2013/12/02/obamacare-is-working-fine-as-long-as-no

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