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Teething troubles plague health insurance program's website

‘Obamacare’ exchanges have trouble with success

by Ezra Klein

The Washington Post

“We’re building a complicated piece of technology,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said on the first day of the new Affordable Care Act — or “Obamacare,” as it is otherwise known — “and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple.”

The Apple analogy has been oft-used by the Obama administration — including by the president himself.

“A couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system, and within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it,” he said.

“I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t.”

But President Barack Obama’s administration does not have a working product that will be improved by a software update. It has a website that almost nobody has been able to successfully use. If Apple launched a major product that functioned as badly as the Affordable Care Act’s online insurance marketplace, the tech world would call for the head of Apple CEO Tim Cook.

The good news for the health care law is that lots of people want to sign up, lots and lots of people — many more, in fact, than anyone expected.

The bad news is that the Obama administration’s online insurance marketplace — which serves 34 states — cannot handle the success.

“The amount of demand is really driving the issues,” a senior administration official said. “But we’re adding capacity every hour.”

Yes, the overwhelming crush of traffic is behind many of the website’s failures. But the website was clearly far, far from prepared for traffic at anywhere near these levels.

That is a planning flaw. The Obama administration badly underestimated the level of interest. The fact that the traffic is good news for the law does not obviate the fact that the site’s inability to absorb that traffic is bad news for the law.

Part of the problem, according to a number of designers, is that the site is badly coded, which makes the traffic problems more acute.

There is a darkly amusing thread on Reddit where Web designers are picking through the site’s code and mocking it mercilessly.

“They’re loading 11 CSS files and 62 (wat?) JavaScript files on each page, uncompressed and without expires headers,” writes Spektr44. “They have blocks of HTML inexplicably wrapped in script tags. Wtf?”

Some of the problems on the site do not require any particular coding experience to identify. While the design is clean and clear, the instructions can be confusing.

For instance, when you input your user name, the site says: “The username is case sensitive. Choose a username that is 6-74 characters long and must contain a lowercase or capital letter, a number, or one of these symbols _.@/-.”

Making matters worse, the warning that your user name does not comply disappears when you click your cursor in the password field, rather than when you type in a conforming name.

A few screens after that, the site may crash entirely.

No one knows how many people have actually signed up through the federal exchanges. It is possible and even likely that the number of visitors who are actually being able to sign up for insurance is quite low.

Republicans who decided to shut down the government last week rather than relentlessly message against the Affordable Care Act’s glitches did the law a great favor. The site’s flaws are real — and if there was more focus on them, they would be quite embarrassing.

Of course, the problem for Republicans is that the proximate cause of the problems directly undercuts their agenda. The fact that the site is buckling under the traffic is not a reason to defund or delay the law. Indeed, it is perverse to use the overwhelming demand as a reason to take the law away from the people who so clearly need it.

Even if it takes a few more days or even weeks until the site is working as well as it should be, the open enrollment period still has another five months and 27 days — or so — to run. These are fixable, not fatal, problems.

But the Obama administration did itself — and the millions of people who wanted to explore signing up — a terrible disservice by building a website that, a few days into launch, is still unusable for most Americans.

They knew that the only way to quiet the law’s critics was to implement it effectively. And building a working e-commerce website is not an impossible task, even with the added challenges of getting various government data services to talk to each other.

Instead, the Obama administration gave critics arguing that the law is not ready for prime time more ammunition for their case.

There are signs the site is improving. The early word from insurers is that basically no one was able to sign up during the first two days, though successful applications began to “trickle” in on day three.

The Department of Health and Human Services says that added capacity has cut wait times by a third, though wait times are not the only problem, as some users found when they got through the queue only to have the site crash on them five or six screens in.

The Obama administration needs to get the marketplace working, and fast.