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Healthcare

Obama's Healthcare Site Needed a Check-up

The re-launch of the HealthCare.gov website that front-ends Barack Obama’s audacious healthcare plans, known colloquially and collectively as ‘Obamacare’, appears, so far, to have been successful.

Obamacare and the attendant website have had a faltering launch, and one that has been heavily criticised. The second run at it has a new, improved site that went live on 30 November, but some say that trust in the project has already been corroded.  

The original HealthCare.gov website was widely criticised in the media, by citizens, and among the President’s peers. These dissenting voices were often, but by no means always, from those sceptical that universal healthcare was positive for the world’s biggest country by GDP and the third-largest by population with almost 314 million people, behind only China and India. Lurid reports even suggested a man was refused access but his dog accepted.

John Boehner, current speaker of the House of Representatives, has little confidence in the system, and has been vocal in his opposition of it. He prefers a smaller, leaner government, and frets that current plans will cost citizens lots and solve little. The system, he says, is a “train wreck”.

“President Obama promised ‘If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your health care plan,’ but it wasn’t true,” he said. “Today, costs are skyrocketing, jobs are being cut, and millions are being forced off of plans they like and need.”

Against this already hostile environment come the well-documented problems that have affected the core website. However, Rick Howard, research director at the analyst firm Gartner, is more confident that the technology will hold firm.

“If recent assessments [are] accurate, the problems that initially plagued HealthCare.gov - such as server capacity, page loading speed or dropped enrolment information - have been methodically and effectively addressed,” he said. “HealthCare.gov will continue to be significantly enhanced over the next 12 to 18 months. This includes more advanced web experience measures and tools such as sentiment indexes, multivariate testing, information clarity measures and customer satisfaction.”

Health, healthcare and insurance are all complex beasts though, and Howard said that there will be elements that are untested.

“The next area of intense focus will be downstream from the comparison-shopping and selection process,” he added. “Real-time interfaces with insurance plans for accurate plan enrolment and individual premium calculation in all of the states in which the federal Marketplace is operating have not likely been tested completely and it’s reasonable to expect issues with those transactions will emerge.”

Technology insider Mark Weinstein, the founder and CEO of Sgrouples, a platform to let users create private personal groups, agreed, saying that no matter how much testing is carried out, it is rarely enough. In the case of the abortive launch, he added, there were some very clear issues.

“Every website has teething problems, outages, et cetera, often most severe upon launching,” Weinstein said.

“People have forgotten the outages that Twitter was quickly legendary for when they became an ‘overnight’ sensation, after nearly two years of being live. The issue here is that of course HealthCare.gov should have anticipated the traffic, and taken every testing measure possible to insure a smooth launch and huge capacity for traffic.

“The sobering fact is that no matter how much virtual testing you do simulating thousands or millions of users, when real users start coming in droves, that is guaranteed to find glitches simulations simply could not approximate. But in this case the mistakes were rampant and the entire preparation/load-testing processes were clearly flawed.”

Weinstein is also expecting to see an increased hardware real estate to support HealthCare.gov, and, like Howard, he is predicting an influx of servers as Obama looks to clear up the messes of a project that even the President himself has described as a failure.

“Unquestionably, the rollout of HealthCare.gov is an embarrassment to the Obama Administration. However, healthcare reform of the US insurance marketplace is a transformational effort that will take a number of years to accomplish,” he said.

“Clearly, a lack of transparency into the actual status of the project resulted in low-quality reporting and timely escalation to — and resolution by — the governance body. A traditional ‘big bang’ approach, rather than a long-term, incremental product development strategy, was not appropriate and, ultimately, didn’t work.”

The launch of Obamacare/HealthCare.gov could have done with some more careful planning and attention, and perhaps a glance at the history of the UK National Health Service’s attempts to overhaul its IT systems where, huge sums were spent on disastrous projects. More consideration in IT project planning could have saved the US government some blushes.

 

David Neal has been writing about technology since the Millennium Bug. He’s survived Alta Vista search and the I Love You virus, and now works from his home in Kent, England.

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David Neal

David Neal has been writing about technology since the Millennium Bug. He’s survived Alta Vista and the I Love You virus, and now works from his home in Kent.

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