The Obamacare rollout debacle

Obamacare got off to an inauspicious start as the website that people were supposed to use to sign up for health insurance kept malfunctioning–not letting users sign in, throwing up error messages, and crashing users’ computers.  To the point that hardly anyone has been able to sign up for the mandated insurance.  Are these mere technical glitches, a bad omen, or an example of the problem with the whole program?  Namely, that it is too complicated, tries to do too much, is poorly planned, and is being run by agencies that don’t realize what they are getting into.

After the jump, a discussion by Ezra Klein, who supports Obamacare, about just how bad the website is.

From Ezra Klein, Wonkbook: Obamacare’s Web site is really bad:

[After citing the Obama administration’s comparison of itself to Apple, whose new releases sometime have glitches.]  But the Obama administration doesn’t have a basically working product that would be improved by a software update. They have a Web site that almost nobody has been able to successfully use. If Apple launched a major new product that functioned as badly as Obamacare’s online insurance marketplace, the tech world would be calling for Tim Cook’s head. . . .

[That so many people want to access the site is a good sign for the program, Mr. Klein says.  Cranach editor’s note: But signing up is mandatory!]

Yes, the overwhelming crush of traffic is behind many of the Web site’s failures. But the Web site was clearly far, far from prepared for traffic at anywhere near these levels. That’s a planning flaw: The Obama administration badly underestimated the level of interest. The fact that the traffic is good news for the law doesn’t 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’s 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 don’t require any particular coding experience to identify. While the design is clean and clear, the instructions can be confusing. For instance, when you choose your username, 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 username doesn’t comply disappears when you click your cursor in the password field, rather than when you type in a conforming username. (At least for me. Though a few screens after that, the site crashed on me entirely.)

No one knows how many people have actually signed up through the federal exchanges. As of Thursday morning, health-care reporters were desperately trying to find even one. Eventually, Chad Henderson was of Georgia was located. He was subsequently interviewed by pretty much every news organization in the country. According to his Facebook page, he was also asked to be on a conference call put on by the Department of Health and Human Services, which suggests that they’re not exactly overwhelmed with successful applicants to trot out before the press. . . .

But the Obama administration did itself — and the millions of people who wanted to explore signing up — a terrible disservice by building a Web site that, four 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 Web site 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 isn’t ready for primetime 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. HHS says that added capacity has cut wait times by a third, though wait times aren’t the only problem, as I found when I got through the queue only to have the site crash on me five or six screens in. The Obama administration need to get the marketplace working, and fast.

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