A Day Of Glitches For Day One Of Obamacare’s Exchange Websites

Day One of the Obamacare online "marketplaces" is proving to be a bit of a bumpy ride.

Healthhcaredotgov

In addition to being Day One of the the first Federal Government shutdown since an era before Google existed, it was also the first day that the health insurance exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act became available to the public. Under the exchanges, individuals are supposed to be able to logon to designated websites depending on what state they live in, fill out a short form and receive quotes for various health care insurance packages that they would be eligible to purchase, with coverage beginning on January 1st. In the week or so running up to this day, there were reports that the officials behind the exchanges were concerned about the ability of the websites to be up and running on the important first day and, sure enough the day has seen a number of reports of technical glitches of various kinds:

Heavy volume contributed to technical problems and delays that plagued the rollout Tuesday of the online insurance markets at the heart of President Obama’s health care law, according to state and federal governments, with officials watching closely for clues to how well the system will work and how many people will take advantage of it.

On Tuesday morning, people trying to shop for coverage at healthcare.gov, the federally run exchange that serves as the marketplace for residents of most states, met with messages citing high traffic and advising, “Please wait here until we send you to the login page” or “The system is down at the moment.” A state-run exchange in Maryland also posted a message saying it was “experiencing connectivity issues” and asking visitors to try again later. Other states reported scattered problems.

New York State’s exchange began operating at 8 a.m. and received 2 million visits in the first hour and a half, “which far exceeds what we were expecting,” said James O’Hare, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. Though some consumers encountered error messages or delays, the site was functioning and processing applications, though how many was not known, he said.

By 9:30 a.m., Kentucky’s exchange, which went live at midnight, had received 24,000 visitors and processed more than 1,000 applications, said Gwenda Bond, a spokeswoman for the state’s health care agency. “The high volume of traffic is causing a few technical glitches,” presenting problems for people who want to apply but not for those who are just browsing, she said.

Most predictions had been for a trickle of new customers at first, rather than a flood, on the online exchanges, where people can shop for competing health plans and see if they qualify for federal subsidies. Polls show that many Americans remain uncertain about the purpose of the exchanges and unconvinced that the law will help them.

It is unclear what the exchanges meant in citing heavy volume; most did not provide numbers, or even return phone calls in the first hours of operation. It is also unclear to what degree problems with the Web sites were due to the kind of technical hurdles that supporters of the program had warned about and that opponents had predicted would demonstrate its unwieldiness.

Federal officials conceded Tuesday that even if volume were low, computer problems would be making it hard for people to shop, compare prices and enroll. The administration has stressed that people can also shop and sign up by phone. But that system, too, ran into first-day troubles, with callers waiting long periods on hold, and operators — just like consumers browsing on their own — unable to use the computer system to view and compare health plans.

At midday on Tuesday, Erin Shields Britt, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said: “We are thrilled that over one million people visited healthcare.gov in the last day. There were five times more users on the marketplace Web site this morning than have ever been on the Medicare.gov at one time. We have built a dynamic system and expect to speed up the system in the coming hours. Consumers who need help can also contact the call center, use the live chat function, or go to localhelp.healthcare.gov to find an in-person assister in their community.”

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, predicted on Monday that there would be “some glitches.”

We will fix them and move on,” Ms. Sebelius said. “Is this a sign that the law is flawed and failed? I don’t think so.”

Washington Examiner’s Charlie Spiering documented his own efforts to create a marketplace account, the first step one must go through before getting to the point where you can compare prices of insurance coverage in your state, and how each effort ended in failures that clearly seem to be due to something other than simply heavy traffic at the website. At the same time, though, it does appear that at least some part of the problems that people have been experiencing can be attributed to high traffic volume, something that isn’t necessarily an unfamiliar problem for a website on launch day, or on the day that a particularly popular product becomes available (think Ticketmaster on the morning that tickets to a popular performer’s concert become available). Even the most sophisticated server farm in the world can melt under heavy demand hitting simultaneously and, to some extent, that appears to what happened earlier today. Nonetheless, there do appear to be some technical problems on the sites that perhaps suggest that some more rigorous pre-launch testing might have been able to resolve. The ironic thing, of course, is that many of the people capable of dealing with these problems have been sent home because of the government shutdown. In any case, one expects that these glitches will be ironed out and, given the fact that the target day for coverage is three months away it would seem that there is more than enough time to fix these problems.

Understandably, these glitches at the exchange websites have been seized upon by conservatives as objects of snark and, in some cases, as supposed evidence that the entire structure of the PPACA is flawed. Perhaps there’s something to that. With three years to prepare, one would have thought that HHS would have been in far better shape to deal with Day One problems than it actually is, even taking the shutdown into account. Additionally, some of the anecdotal reports I’ve heard from people who managed to make it through the registration process to the “plan comparison” part of the site seem to indicate that the cost of insurance offered isn’t going to be much better than it would have been yesterday trying to purchase an individual plan. Granted, some of these people may end up being eligible for the income based subsidies that the PPACA will offer when January rolls around, but even then it doesn’t appear that the idea that insurance premiums are going to be significantly lower for most Americans under the PPACA is going to turn out to be true.

As I speak the President is making a Rose Garden speech about the roll out of the exchanges, while also speaking about the shutdown. He has mentioned the glitches, but attributes them to both high volume and to the fact that new technology products sometimes have glitches, citing the security issues that plagued the recent release of iOS 7 s an example. Indeed, the same day that these marketplace websites are having technical issues, the roll out of Grand Theft Auto V’s online edition is being hampered by technical issues that appear to be related to heavy demand on the very same day. It may turn out that most of the problems the marketplace websites are experiencing today will fade away in the coming days and weeks. Nonetheless, I have to think that Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein makes an excellent point in this Tweet:

 

Indeed. You might even say House Republicans and people like Ted Cruz did the White House a big favor by pushing this story off the front pages.

FILED UNDER: Health Care, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Of course, this is typical of any big-bang software introduction.

    What you want to do, ideally, is have a beta program, and a slow start. That’s why every successful web start-up you ever heard of limited users on day one.

    We just aren’t computer savvy enough in government (so far) that we start these things with betas.

  2. pylon says:

    Lots of people want into Obamacare, it seems.

  3. john personna says:

    @pylon:

    I think so, and tomorrow’s news is going to be about millions of applications.

    Put that in your government shutdown pipe and smoke it.

  4. James Pearce says:

    Obamacare…shutting down the internet it’s so popular!

    (I think the gold in the “glitch” angle is of the Fool’s variety.)

  5. Tillman says:

    Healthcare.gov hasn’t gone spectacularly wrong, like “Apple Maps directing me off a cliff” wrong, yet.

    Given how many pastors of public sector inefficiency we have, that says volumes about how well the whole thing is doing.

    Of course, give it a couple of weeks, something’s bound to go wrong. Either with the law or the nation defaulting on its debt.

  6. MattT says:

    Some of these glitches are certainly inevitable with such a big program. It’s got to be amplified by dividing the program into so many different pieces, on a state-by-state basis……something that Republicans demanded.

  7. @john personna:

    Of course, this is typical of any big-bang software introduction.

    With the exception that I don’t get fined by the IRS when Microsoft Word barfs.

  8. Tillman says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yeah, but don’t you, y’know, lose all your work when that happens? Don’t you have to start over after the Blue Screen of Death wipes out hours, possibly days, of whatever you were writing due to a memory glitch?

    I mean, sure, fines suck, but aren’t you comparing apples and oranges here? These are two very different kinds of misery.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    OMG! First day glitches! Epic Fail! Epic Fail! Well that does it, the program simply must be cancelled…

  10. The real concern shouldn’t be the trivial (albeit obvious) bugs like this, but whether the system has undiscovered securitiy holes. “Please try again later” is mostly just annoying. The real problem is when a few months from now when someone manages to get into the exchange and is able to pull the tax information for millions of people.

  11. markm says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wCwX…hE5oiYwBw#t=16

    ….that is painful to watch.

  12. The horror! A server overload problem on starting day! Unprecedented! And if the HHS had purchased extra server capacity the GOP would have whined about them being over budget or it being a payoff to some corporation whose CEO gave money to the President.

    Either way, it seems to be doing better than the GOP’s ORCA project.

  13. Scott says:

    I wonder how many are actual shoppers or just the curious. Also, aren’t the state exchanges homegrown and not part of the federal exchange. Is there any patterns between states i.e. some states are better prepared than others?

  14. @Tillman:

    Yeah, but knowing how big software problems tend to accompany role out, why not get the exchanges up and running for a while before requiring people to use them? The slim window between turn on and when bad things start happening reeks of the “oh, software is easy” attitude you get when you put non-engineers in charge of an engineering project.

  15. David M says:

    Given the policies sold don’t start coverage until 2014, it seems unlikely the glitches will matter in the long run.

    Assuming a lot of the problems are due to a high traffic volume, isn’t that a positive development? (Given how invested the GOP has been in trying to get people not to use the exchanges)

  16. KM says:

    There is no such animal as a good opening day – there are always something going wrong. It should in no way be a predictor for success. Look up how Disneyland’s first day went and see what it is now.

    Honestly, the only people who would treat this as a massive negative in ACA’s book are people who want the thing to die in the first place. The rest of us have patience.

  17. Tillman says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Isn’t that what they’re doing? My insurance company says I can sign up anytime before December 15th to change my policy via Obamacare. It rolled out today, October 1st.

  18. C. Clavin says:

    Sure seems like there is a heck’ova lot of demand for reasonably priced health insurance.
    Who’da thunk it?

    Meanwhile Republicans have shut down the Government in an attempt to deny sick people care.
    Who’da thunk it?

    Seems the GOP has become the party of rigid ideology.
    Who’da thunk it?

  19. al-Ameda says:

    Oh wow, you never have to wait for service with a private insurance company.

  20. Scott says:

    Isn’t amazing how much the right cheers for failure. From the stimulus to GM to market exchanges to foreign interventions to the economy as a whole, the right roots for failure. Is there something to be said about their fundamental view of this country?

  21. Rafer Janders says:

    “And we’re going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all of this demand that exceeds anything that we had expected. Consider that just a couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system, and within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it. I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t. That’s not how we do things in America. We don’t actively root for failure. We get to work, we make things happen, we make them better, we keep going.” — President Obama.

  22. Tillman says:

    @Scott: To be fair, you’ve got a segment of the left that roots for failure as well when a Republican is in charge. Some of them have legitimate concerns, maybe, but usually not. Think the Iraq surge in 2006.

    “Rooting for failure” is a case of both sides doing it. It’s also a case of “but one side does it disproportionately,” considering current events.

  23. mantis says:

    So now rightwingers have gone from opposition to providing people the ability to get coverage to complaining that they aren’t getting it fast enough, in the span of one day? That’s quite a turnaround.

  24. @Tillman:

    Two months isn’t a whole lot of time for a system this big, especially given how short the pre-release testing period was.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    I love the assumptions a few of the commentators have that any large new program can be set up without error.

    I suggest they investigate the beginnings of the US space program and how many rockets Goddard blew up….

  26. C. Clavin says:

    @ Grumpy…

    “…I love the assumptions a few of the commentators have that any large new program can be set up without error…”

    Yup…eggzachary…those are the commentators who have never actually worked on a large program, or project, of any kind. Yet they have these firmly held beliefs…based totally on bubkis.

  27. David M says:

    @mantis:

    It’s no different then simultaneously opposing the existence of Medicaid and complaining that it doesn’t cover everything.

  28. Scott says:

    @Tillman: Actually, I was thinking a little deeper than that. Remember a few years back (or maybe it is many years back), there was a number of written pieces basically titled “Harvard hates American”. I think the rage of the right wing (particularly the evangelical right) has gotten to a point where nothing is good, everything is going to hell in a handbasket, etc. It is a group of people where objectivity and rationality has gone away, leaving nothing but bitterness. It is hard to get back out of that hole.

  29. C. Clavin says:

    “We’re building a complicated piece of technology,” Sebelius observed, “and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple.”

  30. Bob @ Younstown says:

    Local Tea Partiers are organizing to flood the website with requests to bring down the system.
    They have advised anti-Obama forces to get on the website and just doodle around for hours to attempt to overload.

  31. C. Clavin says:

    @ Bob in Youngstown….
    If that is in fact true…the Tea Baggers are bigger idiots than even I had imagined.
    I’d be willing to bet…a bunch of them are either uninsured…or on Medicare.

  32. Craigo says:

    @Scott: Good luck doing that for 75 days straight.

    It doesn’t appear that the idea that insurance premiums are going to be significantly lower for most Americans under the PPACA is going to turn out to be true.

    The PPACA was created to provide insurance to the uninsured, Doug – which it is doing. You have had three years to figure this out. Even you can’t be that slow.

  33. Matt says:

    @Bob @ Younstown: Wouldn’t surprise me if they are getting DDOSed too.

  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @C. Clavin:

    If that is in fact true…the Tea Baggers are bigger idiots than even I had imagined.

    I can easily imagine it.

  35. John D'Geek says:

    I find this story to not be believable. I mean, not once is there a mention of H1B Visas or IT outsourcing to India! How can we discuss an IT problem without bringing those two things up?!?

    //Sarc

  36. rodney dill says:

    Obungled

  37. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I’d be willing to bet…a bunch of them are either uninsured…or on Medicare.

    Most seem to be medicare aged. For some reason (perhaps by mistake), I was called to take part in the healthcare.gov swamping effort. They were enlisting volunteers to overload the website.

    This may have been just a local effort, I don’t know if it was being directed by a larger group.

    I know the fellow who called me, and he has never gotten beyond the slogan ” Gov’t keep your hands off my medicare”

  38. C. Clavin says:

    Almost 3 million people logged onto the website…and another 80K called in on the phone.
    Not bad for the first day.
    Clearly the end of civilization as we know it.

  39. Scott says:

    Point of reference: The AF timekeeping system kludged up today because nationwide, the civil servants had to record their 4 hrs of time before they were sent home.

  40. Tony W says:

    @Bob @ Younstown:

    They have advised anti-Obama forces to get on the website and just doodle around for hours to attempt to overload.

    Dangerous strategy – they could end up learning about the plan.

  41. bill says:

    i wonder how many were reporters and others in the industry who just want to see what’s in there?

  42. john personna says:

    @bill:

    Google is your friend:

    So let’s look broadly at those numbers. Count them all up — and undoubtedly, numerous ones are missing — and you’ve got something more than 65,000 journalists, working for brands of one kind or another.

    So, if every single person working in news (including fashion, including sports) went to Obamacare on day one, that would be about 65K visitors.

  43. C. Clavin says:

    @ bill…
    Way to stay in your epistemological bubble.
    How do people like you ever learn anything?

  44. anjin-san says:

    I went on the California site. Well designed, easy to use, no network issues. Kaiser (which I have now) is one of the options. No opt-in for death panels. The rate for a “gold” plan for my wife and myself is almost exactly what we are paying now.

  45. anjin-san says:

    @ bill

    The analytics are skewed!

  46. Fred Rodgers says:

    @Bob @ Younstown:

    Local Tea Partiers are organizing to flood the website with requests to bring down the system.

    Similar activity in Illinois

  47. mantis says:

    @anjin-san:

    I went on the California site. Well designed, easy to use, no network issues. Kaiser (which I have now) is one of the options. No opt-in for death panels. The rate for a “gold” plan for my wife and myself is almost exactly what we are paying now.

    Train wreck, in other words.

  48. David M says:

    So on the day with probably the most health care exchange problems, the GOP decided a better headline would be them shutting down the government. Seriously, the launch has gone relatively smoothly, but problems were always going to happen. The GOP couldn’t even figure out how to take political advantage of something they’ve been working on and predicting for years.

  49. anjin-san says:

    @ mantis

    Train wreck, in other words.

    I have no doubt that I will wake up tomorrow a card carrying member of the communist party.

  50. anjin-san says:

    @ Rodney Dill

    Obungled

    Did you get that off one of those clever little graphic we see so often on Facebook now? You know – the ones that have taken the place of actual information in conservative politics…

  51. An Interested Party says:

    @Anjin-san: Do you really expect much more than that from the same person who posts those silly caption contests…

  52. pcbedamned says:

    And my son could not get online to play GTA V today either (on their rollout)…epic fail!!!

    /sarc off/

  53. mantis says:

    @pcbedamned:

    And my son could not get online to play GTA V today either (on their rollout)…epic fail!!!

    Because government can’t do anything right, somehow!

  54. markm says:

    Our state exchange is still down (Michigan) but they do have an official premium estimator. Given the few inputs used to get an estimate, I’ll assume it’s not a close estimate….but if it is, that’s frightening.

  55. Raider says:

    Enjoy your Obamacare folks, especially in the future when you find yourself waiting 6 months to see a specialist. Or when you notice the quality of your medical services declining. Remember also, that when the government Obamacare central data bank which has all your personnel information gets hacked or lost, enjoy that too. Oh, and when the premiums go up and up and up, just smile and relax and say, “yes we can, yes we can, yes we can……”

  56. john personna says:

    @Raider:

    Yes, I fear the made-up futures the most.

  57. anjin-san says:

    Well, the take away from OTB on the shutdown seems to be that a major website launch can be buggy, and the shutdown is so unfair to people who can afford to travel to visit parks and watch football games…

  58. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    They seemed to have missed the cancer patients turned away at the NIH.

    Apparently National(istic) parks trump cancer.

  59. mantis says:

    @john personna:

    They seemed to have missed the cancer patients turned away at the NIH.

    Apparently National(istic) parks trump cancer.

    Let’s not forget that millions of people are now signing up for health care insurance they could not get before. It’s difficult to state how big a deal this is for many who have suffered under a heartless system that shut the door on some of the most vulnerable or unfortunate among us.

    And beyond that, the freedom this allows those who would like to pursue an entrepreneurial venture, go back to college, etc. but couldn’t because losing employer-provided insurance would leave them with no viable options, is huge. Those options exist now, and social mobility will rise as a result.

    Republicans spit on all of these people, while OTB ignores them because glitchy websites and Ted Cruz’s buffoonery are the only interesting aspects of all of this. But the lives of millions of Americans just improved, some quite dramatically so, and ignoring them won’t change that.

  60. grumpy realist says:

    @Raider: Hell, a lot of us already have to wait six months to see a specialist, so what’s the difference?

    and if you think that private corporations aren’t as least as careless as the government is about personal data, you haven’t read the newspapers, period. How many “oops!” have we heard from the banks alone?!

    Idiot.

  61. Rob in CT says:

    I didn’t bother yesterday, as the exchanges aren’t for me and I didn’t want to be yet another guy logging on “just to see what it’s like” when people who actually needed it were trying to get on.

    I did check it out today, though, figuring that today it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. The CT site came right up and seemed to work fine. I didn’t get too deep into it, I admit, because like I said, it’s not for me.

  62. Rob in CT says:

    By the way, I love how “wait a little longer to see a specialist” is supposed to trump “you can’t see a specialist at all, because you’re poor and you suck.”

  63. bill says:

    and the irony of it all!;

    if you exclude the 1 (no associated letters), the federal Obamacare hotline is 1-800-FUCK-YO

  64. Rob in CT says:

    Herherher. Derp.