The Obamacare website catastrophe could make or break his presidency

Zack Christenson Research Fellow, American Consumer Institute
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The Obama Administration’s legacy will be built on a single policy initiative. And over the past two weeks, we’ve seen the digital side of it stubbornly and painfully take its first breaths. Since it launched on October 1st, the digital rollout of Obamacare has been nothing short of disastrous.

Healthcare.gov is the federal government’s portal to find and compare health insurance plans that fit the stringent and cumbersome regulations set forth in the Patient Protections and Affordable Care Act. The website was developed to serve residents of the 36 states that have opted not to create their own statewide insurance exchange, and was hailed before its launch as an example of best practices for governments as they migrate services to the web.

Now that it’s here, entering the site feels like you’ve launched yourself into Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” In its first week of service, it is believed that less than 1 percent of users attempting to find new coverage were able to get past the myriad problems and sign up. Frustrated users pointed to a confusing interface, consistent error messages, and intermittent service interruptions as just a few of the issues riddling the new website.

Closing its third week of life, the website is nearly as tortured today as it was on day one. And with each new day, the healthcare.gov story gets more and more interesting. Daily successful enrollments are no higher today than they were on week one, and return visitors hoping for an improved experience are forced to clear their browser cache, delete their cookies, and turn-off security tools like pop-up blockers in order to realize even the few limited improvements. As helpful hands dig into the code to try and assist, they find large chunks of the 10-year-old technology leveraging stolen copyrighted code without a hint of attribution.

The President, for his part, partially acknowledged the problems on a speech, saying he was more upset than anyone about the problems that users face. But his being upset has done little to fix these problems, and the administration has done little to lay out how it would do so.

From a tech-savvy team, how did we get such a dud of a product? One major last-minute change to the website plan is telling of the Obama Administration’s motives. In the initial plan, the website allowed Americans to browse around and check out potential rates with ease. But, as real data was plugged in, 99-percent increases in rates for men and 62-percent increases for women were just too much transparency for the administration to handle. The final site forced users to register with the government before they can see anything, creating a bevy of steps between entrance and true shopping.

I talked with a user-interface expert at the web firm Crane and Grey, Marc Oestreich, who was quick to point out this major misstep. “Everything we know about users today, tells us to give them immediate access to information,” says Oestreich. “If the healthcare.gov website was selling a product on which it didn’t have a monopoly, it would bleed users to its competitors quickly.”

So, as we wait in hours-long lines, we have to wonder–how much did the new web service cost us? PolicyMic author Brenton Smith might have put it best: “What is $394 million dollars? It is approximately 57,000 low-income kids who were dropped from the Head Start program.”

That’s right, $394 million dollars. Nevermind that already successful healthcare comparison-shopping tools like eHealthInsurance were built in the free market for presumably hundreds of millions of dollars less. I asked Oestreich to ballpark the cost of producing a correctly functioning version of healthcare.gov and how it might get done. Oestreich suggested that his firm would have to do a lot more analysis before finalizing a price, but would likely charge between $250,000 and $400,000.

“Once we’ve checked the site for bugs and load-tested our server for big spikes, we’d conduct a lengthy beta test for at least a month,” he said. You’ll note that the Obama camp gave themselves just 5 days to test their product.

Obamacare officials are likely in full panic mode as you read this. With millions of advertising dollars being poured into a holiday marketing effort, four more weeks of this could sink Obamacare and, quite possible, the Obama legacy.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org