WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- The federal health care exchange was built using
10-year-old technology that may require constant fixes and updates for
the next six months and the eventual overhaul of the entire system,
technology experts told USA TODAY.
"The application is
fundamentally flawed," said Jeff Kim, president of CDNetworks, a
content-delivery network. "They're probably using 1990s technology in
Recent changes have made the exchanges easier to use,
but they still require clearing the computer's cache several times,
stopping a pop-up blocker, talking to people via Web chat who suggest
waiting until the server is not busy, opening links in new windows and
clicking on every available possibility on a page in the hopes of not
receiving an error message. With those changes, it took one hour to
navigate the HealthCare.gov enrollment process Wednesday.
Those steps shouldn't be necessary, experts said.
have never seen a website - in the last five years - require you to
delete the cache in an effort to resolve errors," said Dan Schuyler, a
director at Leavitt Partners, a health care group by former Health and
Human Services secretary Mike Leavitt. "This is a very early Web 1.0
type of fix."
The site could be perfect, but if the systems from
which it draws data are not up to speed, it doesn't matter, said John
Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace, a cloud computer service
"It is a core problem in the sense of it's fundamental
to this thing actually working, but it's not necessarily a problem that
the people who wrote HealthCare.gov can get to," Engates said. "Even if
they had a perfect system, it still won't work."
acknowledged they can't see the whole system, but they said they feared
HHS built a system that will need an expensive overhaul that would cause
more headaches for people trying to buy insurance.
did not respond to a request about the nature of the problems. However,
they reiterated that wait times have been reduced or even eliminated as
they continue to work to fix the system. They have added capacity so
more people may use the site at the same time, and they moved one
component from virtual space to actual hardware to reduce bugs. As of
Wednesday, they did not have an update on numbers.
be the first to tell you that the website launch was rockier than we
wanted it to be,'' HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday at
Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, adding that people
have until Dec. 15 to enroll to ensure coverage beginning Jan. 1.
said HHS has been opaque about the problems, and the tech industry
doesn't know the extent of the issues. "There's no secrets leaking out,"
he said. "I'm sure everyone's looking for something to change the
direction of the conversation, but it's just not there."
"I think it's a data problem," Kim said. "It always comes down to that."
if that's the case, the problems are beyond "rocky," he said. Instead,
it would require a "fundamental re-architecture." In the meantime, "I
think they're just trying to shore up as quickly as possible. They don't
have time to start from scratch."
"If I was them,
and I'm just conjecturing, I would probably come up with some manual way
of saying, 'Only people with the last name starting with 'A' can sign
up today," he said.
But come March 31, when the first enrollment period ends, the "shore up" period may become a "re-architecting" period, Kim said.
On a good note, he said, after looking at available code, the site is "very secure."
the cache, which has helped make it easier for some people to enroll,
could ultimately strain the system more, Kim said. That's because a
"cookie" is stored on a person's computer that contains data, such as
the person's name and address, that can then be quickly accessed when
that person gets on the website again instead of having to be retrieved
from the government's server.
But as HHS fixes errors, the
cookies may not correspond with the updated website, so rather than
allowing someone to quickly log in, they instead cause an error message.
And every time a person clears his computer's cache, the government's
website has to work that much harder to grab more data.
people who may not be Web savvy to use the site in any way other than a
step-by-step easy process defeats the point of the whole system,
Schuyler said. That includes laws mandating that insurers provide clear
explanations about policies to people may make sound decisions and
understand what they're buying.
consumers will have no idea what 'clearing the cache' is and this will
just cause more confusion and frustration," he said.
said he believes most of the problems are caused by systems integration
with other sites, such as the IRS. And that could be causing some of
the problems people see as they make it past the initial application
process. It's a series of questions meant to verify a person's identity
and income. But after that questionnaire, visitors often encounter a
series of error messages, or the page a person tries to click to doesn't
come up. The data requests to other sites could be causing those
problems, Engates said, which would mean the problem isn't with the HHS
"Maybe the site is submitting a request for more
data, and that puts you in that trap again," he said. "It's a giant
integration problem that they have to solve."
And as they try to
fix those problems, there's another issue lurking in the background:
Some HHS personnel were named essential, and not subject to furloughs
because of the government shutdown. But that didn't apply to the other
organizations they were working with, Engates said. So as HHS techs work
around the clock to fix the problems, IRS techs may be prohibited from
working at all.
In the meantime, HHS personnel can't say anything
about the situation, it can be played politically as "bad," he said. If
they say it will take two weeks to fix, they will be criticized because
it's taking too long. But he expects that it's a problem that will be
resolved soon, especially as the volume of visitors goes down.
you can get the system below some sort of threshold, it will perform as
it's supposed to," Engates said. "It won't get any worse. It's going to
get better little by little by little."