Congress Investigates Site Failings


A congressional panel has been hearing evidence about the poor performance of the recently-launched site. It’s becoming clear that there’s much more to it than simply being overwhelmed with demand, though one late decision did exacerbate that problem.

The site is designed as a central resource for users to compare health insurance plans available in their area and for their circumstances, and then sign up to a plan. However there have been widespread problems with users unable to complete the process, having data disappear, or even having incorrect data transferred across to their final purchase application. (Amid the political fury, it led to this great news-in-brief from The Onion.)

The biggest issue appears to be the way the project to set up the site was run. It turns out that 55 different contractors worked on various parts of the site and underlying system. While each contractor seemed happy that their specific part of the site worked as designed, there was no proper “end-to-end” testing (meaning a person portraying a potential insurance buyer working their way through the process using the site) until less than two weeks before launch.

Congress itself came under criticism during the hearings. With the government picking up the bill, a committee questioned contractors in mid-September to check on progress on the project. It’s now been noted (with the benefit of hindsight) that it was content to check every contractor was happy and did not press the issue of whether the various components would work together smoothly.

Forbes notes that as well as the lack of testing, a late structural change is also under fire. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency in charge of the site’s development, decided just 10 days before launch to make it mandatory to register on the site and begin a “real” application before you could see prices. That was a change to the original concept where anyone could browse and see prices for informational purposes.

The result was that everyone who visited the site at launch was effectively forced into the same section (registration) at once, rather than the load being spread across different elements of the site.

The head of the agency will be giving evidence next week. It should make for some fiery exchanges because, as things stand right now, CMS looks to be getting the bulk of the blame, from a technical perspective at least.

Appeal to GaS readers: We know that the setting up of the healthcare exchanges themselves and the wider Affordable Care Act/”Obamacare” measures are politically controversial issues. For the sake of useful discussion, we’d appreciate it if you kept your comments to the topic of the IT system and website itself in this instance.

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