The White House on Sunday announced with fanfare that online health insurance marketplace HealthCare.gov was finally fixed, despite previous fears that the government would miss its own self-imposed deadline. But after a slew of issues since its Oct. 1 launch, is Healthcare.gov really on the mend?
Despite increased traffic — Healthcare.gov had 375,000 visitors on Monday — officials claim the site “remains stable,” and it’s now faster and more reliable.
But experts warn not to be too quick to celebrate the website’s success.
“There was a lot of outrage about the website, so it really set the bar pretty low,” Daniel Castro, senior IT policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), told Mashable. “The fact that the website loads is itself a victory right now.”
Yet, it’s unclear if the site actually does load that much better today. The administration claimed on Sunday that the site has uptimes exceeding 90%, but ProPublica‘s reporter Charles Ornstein ran into some familiar issues when he put it to the test.
“What I found was hardly encouraging — long delays loading pages, an endless circle of tasks (some already completed) and ultimately an error message,” Ornstein wrote. Thirty minutes after he chatted online with a support agent, who told him to wait and try again later, he couldn’t even log on.
Moreover, Castro, who has audited IT security and management controls for government agencies, pointed out that an uptime of 90 or 95% isn’t exactly a great number when it comes to such an important site. In the private sector, a major site is expected to have 99% of uptime, and industry insiders even talk about how many 9s there are, referring to 99.9% or 99.99% uptime rates. That’s far from where Healthcare.gov stands now.
“It’s not terrible, but it’s not the level that you would expect from a government website,” Castro said.
And this is just considering the bugs that the White House claims are fixed. But what about the others?
“They showed that there were 400-plus bugs that have been resolved, but they didn’t really show how many outstanding bugs remain to be solved, remain to be fixed and the severity of these remaining problems,” Castro said.
Most of those issues are likely to be in the back-end of the site, not the front-end, where the administration has focused most of its troubleshooting efforts, according to Rackspace CTO John Engates, one of the few experts the White House invited to see Healthcare.gov’s command center.
“I think what they focused on, to a large extent, was the consumer view from the outside looking into this website,” Engates told NPR. “I don’t necessarily think they’ve gotten all of the behind-the-scenes connections to the health insurance providers and the work that’s necessary behind the scenes to really take this to the finish line. I don’t know if that’s all done yet.”
Even government officials, in fact, still don’t trust the site’s capacity to handle a lot of traffic. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius wrote in an Huffington Post op-ed on Sunday that citizens should “shop HealthCare.gov during off-peak hours (mornings/nights/weekends).”
Considering the site’s main purpose is to enroll as many people as possible, and as fast as possible so that they don’t miss the Jan. 1 deadline, Castro said Sebelius’ suggestion is unacceptable.
Image: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images