Tomorrow marks the two-week anniversary of the Obamacare rollout. Inquiring minds may be wondering how things are going. The short answer is exceptionally poorly.
Hawaii is not even up and running yet due to software glitches. On day 10, some sites reported that a mere 51,000 signups had occurred. Other places said it was double.
Either way, the number of signups is pathetic, and the White House has not released its own total, preferring to give counts of 14 million “lookie-loos” who visited the website without signing up for anything.
Signs of Trouble From the Start
Please consider the New York Times report From the Start, Signs of Trouble at Health Portal
In March, Henry Chao, the chief digital architect for the Obama administration’s new online insurance marketplace, told industry executives that he was deeply worried about the Web site’s debut. “Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience,” he told them.
Two weeks after the rollout, few would say his hopes were realized.
For the past 12 days, a system costing more than $400 million and billed as a one-stop click-and-go hub for citizens seeking health insurance has thwarted the efforts of millions to simply log in. The growing national outcry has deeply embarrassed the White House, which has refused to say how many people have enrolled through the federal exchange.
Even some supporters of the Affordable Care Act worry that the flaws in the system, if not quickly fixed, could threaten the fiscal health of the insurance initiative, which depends on throngs of customers to spread the risk and keep prices low.
“These are not glitches,” said an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange. Like many people interviewed for this article, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not wish to alienate the federal officials with whom he works. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’ ”
One person familiar with the system’s development said that the project was now roughly 70 percent of the way toward operating properly, but that predictions varied on when the remaining 30 percent would be done. “I’ve heard as little as two weeks or as much as a couple of months,” that person said. Others warned that the fixes themselves were creating new problems, and said that the full extent of the problems might not be known because so many consumers had been stymied at the first step in the application process.
Just a trickle of the 14.6 million people who have visited the federal exchange so far have managed to enroll in insurance plans, according to executives of major insurance companies who receive enrollment files from the government. And some of those enrollments are marred by mistakes. Insurance executives said the government had sent some enrollment files to the wrong insurer, confusing companies that have similar names but are in different states. Other files were unusable because crucial information was missing, they said.
Many users of the federal exchange were stuck at square one. A New York Times researcher, for instance, managed to register at 6 a.m. on Oct. 1. But despite more than 40 attempts over the next 11 days, she was never able to log in. Her last attempts led her to a blank screen.
Signups Vs. Obama’s 7 Million Goal
Obama is hoping for 7 million signups. How many does he have? The administration refuses to disclose the number, but 10 days into the program, leaked reports showed 51,000 applicants of which just over 1,000 were actually processed.
On October 11, Media Matters reported Fox Cherry-Picks Obamacare Data To Underestimate Enrollment By More Than Half.
It would help if Obama released the actual numbers. While we are waiting, let’s be generous and assume the numbers are triple or even quadruple initial estimates.
Would 200,000 be a success? Should Republicans simply have stepped back, waiting for this to implode?
Experts Warn of More Obamacare Glitches
Politico reports Tech Experts Wary of More Obamacare Glitches
The glitch-plagued Obamacare rollout might be just the beginning: A series of potential technology problems could thwart the Obama administration’s goal of getting 7 million people enrolled in the new exchanges by the end of March.
Millions of people have already encountered error messages, delays, crashes and stuck accounts. Technology experts and Obamacare backers worry that each step ahead in the process — filling out applications, checking on subsidies and selecting a health insurance plan — creates a potential technology choke point. And that doesn’t even count any additional chaos when people try to use their new health insurance come January.
“There is grave concern that many individuals who are intent on securing coverage by [Jan. 1] may not be able to do so by that date,” said consultant Dan Schuyler, who helped design a health insurance exchange in Utah and is now the senior technology expert at Leavitt Partners. “There’s a small window [the Department of Health and Human Services] has. If the problems persist another three or four weeks, those at the back of the line will not have coverage.”
Some software engineers have suggested that the consumer end of the website, designed by one contractor, is not “talking to” the back end of the website, developed by a different company.
Diagnostic tools in Web browsers have identified coding issues that may be complicating account creation. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the administration is considering an overhaul of the registration system this weekend to allow people to browse health plan options without first creating an account. The paper said the tech experts are focused on a bottleneck where a flood of data meets an Oracle software component involved in identification verification.
There’s particular worry about that tax credit calculation, which determines how much of the premium people have to pay.
“If we are already running into issues at the user account stage, we’re going to run into a lot more issues when we get to the more complex operations at the [subsidy] eligibility determination,” said Leavitt’s Schuyler. “That’s the reality. It’s a very complex process, and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
HHS declined to comment on The Wall Street Journal report or to respond to POLITICO’s specific questions about possible problems with subsidy determinations or the enrollment transfers to insurers, two of the areas that experts pointed to as of particular concern.
Part of the problem is that signing up for Obamacare coverage is far more complicated than the online transactions Americans are used to, like checking a bank balance or ordering a book. The Obamacare website must knit together platforms from five huge federal agencies — Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration, HHS, the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice — each of which marches to its own IT specifications. It must also interact with separate systems set up by the 15 states that built their own exchanges, plus all of those outside insurers.
It’s an unprecedented experiment in federal information technology.
Requiring five distinct government agencies to integrate IT functions, on a tight time schedule, with something as complicated as Obamacare was a fool’s mission from the beginning.
But Obamacare is unprecedented in more ways than one. And the early prognosis looks as bad from a technological standpoint as it does from an economic standpoint.
Here’s the key difference: Technology can be fixed eventually, but Obamacare itself can’t.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock