To hear people familiar with the process tell it, it’s not too surprising that the government’s health insurance website stumbled into public view like a drunk falling from a barstool. It hasn’t been pretty, and the job may be more difficult than most people imagine.
But it doesn’t matter.
Washington had years to get this right, and it didn’t come close. The debut of the online health insurance marketplace was handled about as badly as it could have been. It was an embarrassment to President Obama that the presentation of his signature achievement has been disastrous. It could have been politically damaging, as well, except that it occurred while Republicans were preoccupying the country with a pointless government shutdown.
Some of the problem was that the system was overwhelmed by users and, perhaps for obvious reasons, that is one of the hardest aspects of a website rollout to test ahead of time.
That doesn’t matter, either.
For better or worse, this is the biggest domestic governmental undertaking in decades. It’s a huge program and, while that may presuppose some glitches, it doesn’t excuse the kind of overarching failure that has plagued this rollout.
That is especially true, given that a clock is ticking. Americans who need to buy their own insurance under this law are facing a Dec. 15 deadline to purchase coverage that begins in January. Some experts worry that the problems can’t be fixed even by then, let alone by Nov. 1, the date that administration officials want the repair squad to meet.
It’s a huge job. One specialist estimated that as many as five million lines of software code may need to be rewritten. That’s a clue to the complexity of the website and the predictability of at least some opening-day problems.
But if problems were predictable, why crowd the deadlines so much? According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the problem is on the “back end” of the website, where the databases and services are stored to respond to the input of users on the front end. That part of the website was built by CGI Federal, a contractor and wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian firm CGI Group.
More problems may yet appear. One person involved in the repair job said that problems with account creation and registration are concealing other issues that will appear once those issues are solved.
It’s one thing to be overloaded with users, but how could front-door problems like creating an account go undetected? Whose job was it to be sure that CGI Federal was doing the job for which it had been hired? And what was the process for choosing that company to take on one of the most complex domestic projects in history?
Washington would have done better to hire someone away from Amazon or some other business with experience building and running complex websites to lead this effort. Why doesn’t the administration go get those people now?
The administration is going to have to consider allowing a grace period after the Dec. 15 registration deadline if it can’t fix the problems with the website promptly, though good luck with that if it requires the cooperation of Congress.
Congress should cooperate. This is a law that members’ constituents will be expected to honor. As it happens, that is also the reason the administration should have gotten this rollout right to begin with.