Will the Obamacare website still be a turkey following Thanksgiving?
After perhaps the rockiest start in history for a major government program launch, the Obama administration promised that the HealthCare.gov website would be ready for full duty on Nov. 30. The website serves as the backbone for Americans in 36 states in purchasing health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Now that the magic date is at hand, the nation will find out whether the website will live up to expectations.
While many fixate on the performance issues experienced by the Obamacare website, in reality there were quite a few other serious problems. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stated that there were "a couple of hundred" problems needing to be resolved after HealthCare.gov launched. Those issues generally fall into one of four categories – performance, application processing, website security, and exchange of data with insurers.
Probably the biggest performance problem identified early on in the operation of the Obamacare website was with the account creation component developed by UnitedHealth Group's (NYSE:UNH) Quality Software Services. This issue resulted in a bottleneck for users on HealthCare.gov.
Multiple application processing glitches also were quickly found. Some insurance plans that should have appeared on the website didn't show up at all. Users saw erroneous prices for some plans. Critical steps in completing the enrollment process were skipped altogether.
Security for HealthCare.gov emerged as another significant concern after a South Carolina resident learned that his personal information was inadvertently viewed by a person in another state. That problem was quickly fixed, but several security experts testifying before Congress recently warned that the website still isn't secure.
Aetna (NYSE:AET) CEO Mark Bertolini's comments captured the magnitude of the issues experienced by the website in exchanging data with insurers. Bertolini told CNBC that "there's so much wrong, you just don't know what's broken until you get a lot more of it fixed." If insurance companies like Aetna can't get correct data from HealthCare.gov, they can't process applications successfully.
Facing a barrage of criticism, the White House brought in Jeffrey Zients to salvage the Obamacare websites. Among the key changes made was to appoint UnitedHealth's Quality Software Services as the lead contractor.
Experts from several big-name technology companies, including Google, Oracle, and Red Hat, were also brought in to help resolve some of the problems. President Obama referred to all of this as a "tech surge."
Incremental changes have been made throughout the past several weeks. Rather than take the HealthCare.gov site down while issues were resolved, federal officials opted to leave it in operation and fix it in motion.
Technical teams are also working to resolve the issues related to the enrollment files sent to insurers known as "834" files. These files are named after the identifier given by the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, for the enrollment transaction. Issues with the 834 files are invisible to website users, but any problems could result in sending bad data to insurance companies.
Judging from what federal officials are saying, HealthCare.gov is performing better than it did. White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Tuesday that the website can now support 50,000 simultaneous users. Many of the bugs affecting completion of applications have also been fixed.
Bigger question marks, though, relate to security and those 834 files. While individuals responsible for the security of the website have said that the site meets applicable federal cyber-security standards, outside experts aren't very confident about the security of HealthCare.gov. And so far, the government hasn't released any information about error rates for enrollment data sent to insurers.
Two numbers thrown about by federal officials recently have raised eyebrows. The White House announced that the Obamacare website will work for only 80% of online users. As I've noted before, those odds are worse than what you'd experience playing Russian roulette.
Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, also said that up to 40% of the work needed for "back office systems" remains undone. These functions include details like paying insurance companies for the coverage provided to individuals. The back-office issues wouldn't afffect people as they use the HealthCare.gov website but could keep them from ultimately getting insurance if not successfully completed soon.
What will the final prognosis for the Obamacare website be? We'll soon know. The answer will determine how happy the December holidays will be for many technology contractors and insurers -- and especially for federal government officials.