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2013-10-07

Computer Glitches Plague Obamacare Launch as New York Accidentally Says Site Won’t Be Up Until 3013

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Bill Curtis, senior vice president and chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm. He’s also the director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality.

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"We apologize for the inconvenience. The Marketplace is currently undergoing regularly scheduled maintenance and will be back up Monday 10/7/3013." That’s the message New Yorkers received this weekend when they attempted to sign up for health insurance via the new online health exchange or marketplace, a key component of Obamacare. While the New York website has taken down the notice, widespread website problems have been reported across the nation since the state and federal marketplaces launched last Tuesday. Visitors to the federal HealthCare.gov also received a warning message this weekend reading, "The system is down at the moment. We’re currently performing scheduled maintenance. Please try again later." It is unclear how many people have actually been able to sign up so far. We speak to Bill Curtis, senior vice president and chief scientist at the software quality analysis firm CAST and director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "We apologize for the inconvenience. The Marketplace is currently undergoing regularly scheduled maintenance and will be back up Monday (10/7/3013)." That’s right, October 7th, 3013. That’s the message New Yorkers received this weekend when they attempted to sign up for health insurance via the new online health exchange or marketplace, a key component of "Obamacare."

While the New York site has taken down the notice, widespread computer problems have plagued websites across the nation since the state and federal marketplaces launched last Tuesday. Visitors to the federal healthcare.gov website also received a warning message reading, quote, "The system is down at the moment. We’re currently performing scheduled maintenance. Please try again later."

It’s unclear how many people have actually been able to sign up so far anywhere in the country for health insurance. The administration has not released any figures. According to Forbes, the number might be in the single digits, when they looked, for example, at California. On Tuesday, President Obama promised quick fixes to the problems.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We found out that there have been times this morning where the site’s been running more slowly than it normally will. The reason is because more than one million people visited healthcare.gov before 7:00 in the morning. To put that in context, there were five times more users in the marketplace this morning than have ever been on Medicare.gov at one time. That gives you a sense of how important this is to millions of Americans around the country. And that’s a good thing. And we’re going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all this demand that exceeds anything that we had expected.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking on Tuesday. Many of the issues remain unresolved.

For more, we’re joined by Democracy Now! audio stream by Bill Curtis, senior vice president and chief scientist at CAST, a software quality analysis firm. He’s also the director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality, speaking to us from Texas.

Bill Curtis, welcome to Democracy Now! President Obama has said this is a sign of the success of "Obamacare," because so many people have pounded the websites, that they did not expect this level of response. But why? They’ve been talking about this level of response for a long time. What do you see as the problems in this last week? Many websites, federal and state, have basically not worked for seven days.

BILL CURTIS: Right, Amy. I think there’s at least three problems here. Number one, it’s a very complex law, so it leads to very complex software to try to implement this. You’re trying to integrate systems in the government, state government, insurance companies, several different federal agencies. That alone is very complex. All the data that you have to coordinate is very complex, especially if they didn’t represent it the same way and they’re trying to get all that coordinated. They probably underestimated the amount of bangs they were going to have, hits they were going to have on the website. So that’s a problem. It really—this has the hallmark of a project that was rushed, and we see this constantly in the IT world. If you give a date that people cant’ meet, they rush, they try to meet it, they make lots of mistakes, and they don’t have time to fix them all.

In addition, reading in some of the technical websites, it appears that the people who have been able to look at the code see that a lot of it’s inefficient, that when you have this kind of a response, any kind of inefficiency in the software itself is going to be highlighted, and it’s going to cause slowdowns. And that, apparently, is what’s happened.

So we have—we have complex code, that isn’t necessarily as efficient as it should be, rushed out, with very complex logic. I mean, the law itself is a complex piece of logic, and you try to translate that into a piece of software, which is a very complex piece of logic, you try to do it in a rush, and you get the kind of situation that we’ve had.

AMY GOODMAN: You have not only the websites—on the federal website, they have the drop-down menu, and that doesn’t work at all. Explain what that is, and also—

BILL CURTIS: That—yeah, that speaks—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

BILL CURTIS: Oh, go ahead—well, I mean, menus are just a standard user interface technique, but apparently some of the areas in which you were supposed to enter information didn’t receive it, didn’t accepted, which tells us there are problems inside the software itself, just that—again, they were in a rush. They probably weren’t able to do a thorough job of testing, and so some aspects of the interface don’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: But aren’t there basic procedures?

BILL CURTIS: It could be because they’re under so much stress—

AMY GOODMAN: Aren’t there basic procedures here? I mean, wasn’t it astounding that October 1st was the first day you could go, the day you could sign up? Isn’t there something called a soft launch, where you could have people looking at it in the days before, but not able, perhaps, to actually sign up, so that more people could be testing it? Or you test it—the federal government website is in scores of states; you test it in a smaller area before you go to the—you know, all of the states—A/B testing?

BILL CURTIS: You certainly have a lot of options for rolling this thing out that don’t require everybody be online day one. You could—you could do it to some states, hopefully smaller states. You could just only allow a portion of the people, you know, everyone between the letters A and C. You could allow only part of the functionality to be available. You know, you can try to make an application: "We’re not going to process the entire thing now." There are lots of ways it could have been rolled out so that you’re only having to prepare some of the functionality and not have as much stress on the system as we saw. They tried to go full up day one and probably didn’t have an adequate time to test it, certainly didn’t appear to beta test it early on, so that, yeah, that leads to a lot of the problems that we’ve seen. It is inadequate time to really work through the details, and sort of no backup plan and slower way to roll this out pieces at a time so we could see how it works and solve the problems before it went live with the entire country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to President Obama speaking Tuesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: But we’re not talking about, you know, a few glitches on a few days. For example, here in New York, I’m not—it’s not clear whether one person has been able to sign up. And this is seven days out. Now, maybe one person has been able to sign up, but the state certainly hasn’t released that information. Bill Curtis?

BILL CURTIS: Well, and look at the comparison here. Apple still had a working product. We don’t have a working product yet in the healthcare—the affordable healthcare market. So that’s a huge difference. Apple had a glitch. Almost all large information systems have glitches. But if they work, you can get some things done. Apple could get some things done. You know, you could use your iPhone. They can fix that glitch. This was a whole different situation, and it was a much larger glitch. It was a much larger problem with underestimating capacity, with software that probably wasn’t as efficient as it should be, which was even worse exposed by the amount of capacity that was demanded on day one. So this is a very different situation than Apple having a glitch in the iPhone.

AMY GOODMAN: It also makes you wonder about the companies that got the tremendous, you know, contracts—tens of millions of dollars, right—for the states and for the federal government to make these, whether in fact they were chosen for their ability to do this or whether it was politics.

BILL CURTIS: There’s all kinds of issues. You know, the federal government has been wrestling with their acquisition policy for decades, and this is not the first time we’ve had a major system outsourced into various contractors and then had a problem when it went live. This is a fairly consistent—fairly consistent problem. We’ve seen it with an old IRS system. We’ve seen it with air traffic control. We’ve seen it in a number of areas where we had systems roll out that didn’t work the way they were supposed to and had to be retrenched or reworked. So, this is a real problem in federal IT system acquisition. There’s been some laws passed. They still—they still struggle. You know, we need as qualified collection project managers as we can get in the federal government, because often you have mid-level people who haven’t managed projects of this size trying to manage a massive project, in this case, and really not understanding all the resources they need, all of the problems they’re going to run into, and how to better manage a collection of contractors trying to integrate all these different systems and, you know, provide the time and resources necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: Kind of makes you wonder if some of the hackers that the Obama administration is cracking down on, if they were brought together to look at the state and federal websites, if they could solve this pretty quickly. But that’s speculation. And, Bill Curtis—

BILL CURTIS: Well, they—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

BILL CURTIS: Yeah, that—you know, hackers are good at breaking into certain things, but building a large, complex information system like the Affordable Healthcare Act demands is not something that can be done by hackers. It really takes some pretty solid project management, long-term planning and organization, and a coordination with an awful lot of people. That’s not basic hacking.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, I actually used that team lightly.

BILL CURTIS: And I think that’s part of the problem [inaudible] been having.

AMY GOODMAN: I use that term loosely, I should say, but some of the very creative people who are being targeted right now, if they were involved with building these websites. Yes, it’s not just hacking.

BILL CURTIS: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curtis, I want to thank you for being—

BILL CURTIS: Well, but I do think there’s a misperception that you can’t have—you bet.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, say that again?

BILL CURTIS: Bye-bye.

AMY GOODMAN: No, say that again, Bill, that last point.

BILL CURTIS: Oh, there is a misperception that all I have to have are—all I have to have are really bright people, and I can make this work. And it’s much more complex than that. You really do have to have real strong management and planning, not just the bright people. You need bright people, but you need more.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Curtis, thanks for being with us, senior vice president and chief scientist at CAST, a software quality—software quality analysis firm, director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality in Texas. When we come back, a discussion about "Obamacare." Is it a road to single-payer? Stay with us.

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