Judging from the Congressional Hearing involving some of the major component vendors behind Healthcare.gov, Congress and the White House need some assistance in understanding how a major website development project works. Yelling at component vendors is useless but makes for good drama on local news at 6 o’clock. What is needed is a team experienced with integrating various web components into a cohesive whole from end to end. Apparently that was lacking with this site. Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients is being tapped to “fix” the site, but his background is more into management consulting and business policy, not IT.
Here’s what we know so far about plans to fix the site:
(Reuters) – President Barack Obama promised on Saturday that his troubled healthcare website was just weeks away from a cure as he struggled to convince Americans he is on top of what has become a self-inflicted wound to his signature first-term achievement.
His administration unveiled a plan on Friday to make Obamacare insurance marketplaces on healthcare.gov – a website riddled with error messages, long delays and bugs – work better by the end of November.
It was the end to an embarrassing week where Obama discovered he had overshot on an Oct 1. promise of a website that would make shopping for health insurance as easy as buying “a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon.”
“As you may have heard, the site isn’t working the way it’s supposed to yet,” Obama said in his weekly Saturday address – an understatement after days of reports of people being shut out of the system.
“In the coming weeks, we are going to get it working as smoothly as it’s supposed to,” he added.
Obama had stood firm against Republican attempts to defund or delay the healthcare law, known popularly as Obamacare – efforts that led to a 16-day government shutdown this month.
He and his top officials had warned publicly before October 1 that there could be “glitches,” but the White House has been scrambling to control the damage from a rollout that was far worse than expected.
The depth of the design flaws has raised questions about why the Obama administration was so insistent on starting the enrollments on October 1 when the system was clearly not ready – and laid bare the president’s mistake in raising expectations about how good the website was going to be.
“Either they made assumptions that were too optimistic and were caught off guard, or they knew that the difficulties would be greater than the public understood, but chose not to say so,” said Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution expert who was a domestic policy adviser to Democratic President Bill Clinton.
“It may be some of both.”
CRISIS MANAGEMENT 101
Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients, appointed on Tuesday to figure out how to manage the complicated fixes for the website, was an unannounced participant on a conference call with health reporters on Friday afternoon.
Zients gave a deadline, although he cautioned there was a lot of work to do. “By the end of November, healthcare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users,” he said.
Borrowing from the lexicon of homebuilders, Zients said he had hired a “general contractor” to manage the many contractors on the project, and developed a “punch list” of dozens of problems to address.
There’s been a rash of commentary from some on the left who’ve decided that the real problem with Obamacare isn’t the crippling technological issues that have made it impossible for almost anyone to enroll in the federally run health-insurance exchanges but the media’s coverage of those problems.
It’s not the crime, it’s the lack of a cover-up.
The complaint takes different forms. Salon’s Joan Walsh frames it instrumentally. The coverage, she writes, “only aids [the] unhinged right.” In this telling, the problem with reporting on Obamacare’s problems is that it helps Obamacare’s enemies.
Zerlina Maxwell frames it as a question of insured journalists being unable to see past their own rarified position. “The privilege of analyzing the process from the perspective of someone who is already insured and not in need of coverage allows the core impact of the new program on the health and security of millions of Americans to be missed,” she writes.
There are dimensions to these arguments that really center on the job of the journalist, and there, I think Walsh and Maxwell and I simply disagree. But behind this disagreement is a question about how deep the law’s problems really go. As Walsh and Maxwell (and President Obama) say, Obamacare is more than just a Web site. More balanced coverage, they believe, would be emphasizing all its other good qualities.
“I was actually happy to see the president come out defiantly in his Rose Garden talk, describing the ACA as ‘not just a website’ and listing the many benefits it’s already providing,” wrote Walsh.
“Obamacare is more than a website,” repeats Maxwell.
Obamacare’s problems go far beyond its Web site.
A failure in the press coverage of the health-care exchange’s rocky launch has been in allowing people to believe that the problem is a glitchy Web site. This is a failure of language: “The Web site” has become a confusing stand-in phrase for any problem relating to the law’s underlying infrastructure. No one has a very good word to describe everything that infrastructure encompasses.
In brick-and-mortar terms, it’s the road that leads to the store, the store itself, the payment systems between the store and the government and the manufacturers, the computer system the manufacturers use to fill the orders, the trucks that carry the the product back to the store, the loading dock where the customers pick up the products, and so on.
It’s the problems in that infrastructure — indeed, much more than “just a Web site” — that pose such deep problems for the law.
As Sarah Kliff and I wrote in our overview of the health-care launch’s technical issues, the challenges right now can be grouped into three broad categories: problems with the consumer experience on the HealthCare.gov Web site, problems with the eligibility system, and problems with the hand-off to insurers.
The problems with the Web site are the difficulties consumers are facing when they try to log on and shop for insurance coverage. These problems — error messages, site timeouts, difficulty logging in to an account — make it hard for an individual to buy coverage through the marketplace. They are the reason why some people have made upward of 20 attempts at purchasing a plan. These are the problems that are being fixed fastest and that are the least serious.