• A rolling train
    October 23,2013

    Descriptions of the problems plaguing the state and federal health care exchanges have mostly been vague references to glitches and bumps in the road and ill-defined software problems. The most brightly optimistic explanation has been that the website problems are a sign of the program’s success: So many people want to sign up that they are crashing the system.

    Presidential spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged that high traffic had caused some problems but had exposed others.

    Gov. Peter Shumlin has joined the chorus of leaders expressing frustration with the websites that are supposed to be guiding millions of Americans to health care coverage. The numbers in Vermont show a pattern similar to the national pattern. There has been a lot of interest but limited ability to complete the process. In Vermont there have been 80,000 visits to the Vermont Health Connect website, but only 7,000 accounts have been created and only 950 applications completed.

    Shumlin said he had been in touch with the president of CGI Systems and Technologies, the division of a Montreal company that designed both the federal website and Vermont’s. “When we pay for a product, I expect it to work,” Shumlin said. He said he would hold CGI’s feet to the fire.

    Those feet are likely to get a good scorching. While government officials have not been specific in assigning blame, a computer science professor speaking on the NPR program “On Point” pointed the finger clearly at CGI and the codes written by the company to make the federal website work. Armando Fox, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said he had seen the code for the federal website and it would not even have passed the standards of his basic code-writing course.

    There are also some structural problems. Visitors to the site are required to obtain verification of income early in the process, rather than later, thus holding up the process at the start.

    The Obama administration is bringing in outside experts to look over the federal website and its software problems. Presumably, the people at CGI will come in for some tough questioning and the experts will be able to upgrade the sophistication of the software. Fox said it was not unprecedented for technology companies to fix troubled programs while the train is in motion without having to stop the train and take off the wheels. All the big companies — Netflix, eBay, Amazon — know how to do it.

    The numbers suggest the American people have an interest in making this new health care system work. The high number of visitors is not an excuse for the system’s problems, but it is a sign that the American people, at least a good portion of them, do not equate Obamacare with the destruction of the American way of life.

    That was the picture painted by strident conservatives during the recent government shutdown, and new polling by The Washington Post and ABC News shows that most Americans do not buy into that dire message. It may be that Obama and Shumlin will be able to count on a relatively high degree of patience by the American people as CGI and the government, at both the federal and state levels, get their act together. If people believe the Affordable Care Act will bring them affordable care, they will have an interest in letting the experts get the system up and running.

    The roll-out of the program has had to contend with a variety of uncertainties and difficulties created by politics. There was uncertainty about whether Obama was going to win re-election last year and whether the Supreme Court would rule the law to be constitutional. Congress has been stingy with money to fund the creation of the website, which appears to have been rushed into existence without sufficient testing.

    Obama cannot use these as excuses. He has to fix the problem, and he knows it. Meanwhile, millions of Americans who have never been able to afford adequate health care coverage are waiting hopefully for the opportunity.

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