White House Scrambling to Fix Healthcare.gov

President Obama expressed frustration over the crisis confronting Healthcare.gov, the online marketplace where Americans can purchase health insurance. “No excuse for the problems, and these problems are getting fixed,” he told reporters gathered in the White House’s Rose Garden to hear him speak.

Obama argued that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that backs the Website remains sound, no matter what problems the portal itself has experienced since its Oct. 1 launch. “The essence of the law, the health insurance that’s available to people is working just fine,” he said, according to Politico. “The problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for insurance hasn’t been working.” He advocated a toll-free number where people could sign up in lieu of heading online.

A blog posting on the White House’s Website went into a little more depth about the fixes underway. “We have updated the site several times with new code that includes bug fixes that have greatly improved the HealthCare.gov experience,” it read. “The initial wave of interest stressed the account service, resulting in many consumers experiencing trouble signing up, while those that were able to sign up sometimes had problems logging in.”

Part of that updating includes adding capacity to deal with the constant inflow of new customers, which eventually allowed Healthcare.gov to eliminate its confusing “virtual waiting room.” The White House also claims it’s unleashing a “tech surge,” composed of those with technical skills from “inside and outside the government” to improve the Website’s backend infrastructure.

“We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them,” the blog posting added. “We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.”

But is a “surge” necessarily the answer to Healthcare.gov’s massive issues? That’s the multi-billion-dollar question, and one that probably won’t be answered for at least a few months. Government administrators are obviously hoping to buck the theory established by The Mythical Man-Month, a famous book on software engineering that suggests adding manpower to a project actually slows it down; executives at tech companies such as Amazon have embraced that principle (also known as Brooks’s Law) with regard to IT management.

But it’s difficult to determine how the project could heal its wounds at a faster pace. The snarl of bureaucracy, and the need for communication and interoperability between a variety of states, agencies, and private enterprises, means it would most likely be counterproductive to break the project structure down into smaller, quasi-independent groups of managers and engineers (as companies such as Apple and Amazon do with their projects). As with so many government projects, the only solution for the White House may rest in muddling through as best it can, burning tax dollars (and time) in the process.

 

Image: Healthcare.gov