Ah, last week. We were so young. So naive. Seven days ago I wrote about how conservatives who were jumping up and down with excitement about bugs in the Healthcare.gov rollout were getting ahead of themselves. I argued that any massive tech rollout is bound to have errors. It was just too early to say whether Healthcare.gov's problems were nature (bad design) or nurture (good design that was temporarily failing because of sheer demand).
A week later, it does not seem too early to say. Healthcare.gov is failing, and the problems are self-inflicted. Reuters convened a panel of IT experts to weigh in on why the site was so buggy. They agree that it's a lemon, and they're not optimistic about anything getting better soon.
"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."
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 ... "They set up the website in such a way that too many requests to the server arrived at the same time," Hancock said. 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.
So it's not working for the simplest reason: bad design. Compounding that, the tech support is shockingly awful. Over at Slate, John Dickerson posted a transcript with a woman who spent about half an hour waiting to talk to an online tech support person, who hung up on her and told her to call the toll free number. That sentence doesn't convey the sympathetic frustration you will feel reading the transcript. Here's a sample of the conversation between Alice (Dickerson's source) and her friendly government representative, PGSTX0534 (his friends call him TX0534 for short):
[4:31:12 pm]: Alice
My information is not recording correctly in the summary of my application
[4:31:35 pm]: Alice
I have tried to edit it multiple times and it is still wrong
[4:32:21 pm]: PGSTX0534
Thanks for your interest in the Health Insurance Marketplace. We have a lot of visitors trying to use our website right now. That is causing some glitches for some people trying to create accounts or log in. Keep trying, and thanks for your patience. We'll continue working to improve the site so you can get covered
[4:32:40 pm]: Alice
what does that mean?
[4:32:52 pm]: Alice
It says my application is "in Progress"
[4:33:12 pm]: Alice
Does that mean it is not completed and I can continue to try to edit it?
[4:33:55 pm]: Alice
[4:34:14 pm]: PGSTX0534
Thank you. One moment please while I look that up.
[4:36:19 pm]: PGSTX0534
The only way we can see your application is you will have to call The Health Insurance Marketplace Call Center at 1-800-318-2596. We are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist you.
[4:36:47 pm]: Alice
What does the Chat Service do then?
She received no response to her last question.
Coverage doesn't start until January 1st, and open enrollment won't close until March 31st. The administration has time to fix this, but they've already damaged people's confidence in a system that those people are being compelled to rely on. Government healthcare shouldn't be like the DMV -- a Kafka-esque bureaucracy that makes your stomach churn when you imagine it. We're entitled to a basic confidence that Healthcare.gov will work, and that if it doesn't, that we'll be able to talk to a human being who can walk us through it. Right now, that's not the case.