www.healthcare.gov – A Classic IT Disaster

My family is OK with health insurance coverage for now and I live in Minnesota, which has its own website for navigating the local healthcare marketplace, so I don’t need to deal with the US healthcare.gov website to find health insurance. But I was curious after looking at the news the past several days. I find it amazing that an Internet website generates front page newspaper and breathless TV coverage and I wanted to see what the fuss is all about.

My wife’s sister and her husband live in Indiana, so I wondered how health care coverage would look in their state and county. Navigating the website was straightforward and I found a few sample plans and pricing. The prices looked high, but each page boldly displayed caveats that the prices displayed were probably high and lower prices were most likely available by filling out a real application.

The website also mentioned a worksheet called the Kaiser Family Foundation health insurance cost and savings calculator and provided a helpful link. Answer a few quick questions using this worksheet and the website promised to generate more accurate price estimates.

So I followed the link and came to a page with some helpful explanations. So far so good.

When I clicked Next, presumably to start answering those few quick questions, a popup window with red text and yellow background popped up that said,

Please review your answers on this page,
there was a problem with one or more of

This question is mandatory.

I would love to fix my answers, but this page had no questions.

In less than 5 minutes, I found an obvious programming bug by taking a path through this website that any typical user would follow. Here is a screenshot, reduced in size to 50 percent to capture most of the page. Notice the popup message at the bottom about answering questions, but the page only has explanatory text. There are no questions to answer, but the website will not allow me to navigate away from this page without answering its nonexistent questions.

Now I see what the fuss is all about. If I stumbled across such an obvious bug in less than 5 minutes without even trying, what other bugs are lurking beneath the surface? Current news reports suggest this website is full of bugs, performance issues, and inaccurate information. After my experience, I believe the reports.

The consequences are predictable. Politicians with no IT experience beyond using Facebook and smartphones are screaming, and VIPs across the government with no IT experience are trying to hold other VIPs with no IT experience responsible for this mess.

Where have I seen this before? Perhaps with every big IT project ever conceived since the dawn of big IT projects? Why would any IT veteran be surprised this one has serious problems? This project has all the classic elements: A lofty goal at the beginning, political maneuvering among potential contractors for development money, squabbling constituencies during development, major changes in design and function throughout the process, no time for serious testing to meet a looming deadline, nobody in overall charge of the effort, and a search for scapegoats at the end when the project fails to meet expectations. And in a classic and insulting knee-jerk response, our most senior and clueless Executive Branch officials now promise us they’re bringing in the A-team of “experts” to fix it all.

The stakes are indeed high. By United States federal law, and affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, we Americans are forced alpha testers for a new piece of technology over which we have no control, and if the technology fails, we pay a fine. I see attorneys building entire careers from the lawsuits this debacle will generate.

The quick fix President Obama promises will not happen for many reasons. First, as a few grizzled IT veterans constantly remind me by metaphor, the calendar time for a 9 month pregnancy cannot be reduced by finding 9 people to each work one month. In IT terms, a pregnancy project only achieves its goal if one person does all the required tasks during 9 consecutive calendar months because the output from earlier months provides the input to later months.

Software development is not war and the Obamacare surge metaphor comparing this project with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a load of BS. Adding more programmers does not necessarily improve development time because at some point in any software development project, adding more labor becomes counterproductive. Even if they are “experts”. When the United States Federal government sends in their newly found “experts”, these new people will first climb a learning curve before becoming productive, and will then face the same project dependencies and constituencies as the earlier, presumably less capable team that came before them.

President Obama’s proposal to fix healthcare.gov is like proposing new tires for the car to fix a broken engine. It’s nonsense.

Beyond rookie programming errors such as the one I found, the problems are fundamental. The real fixes will depend on all players cooperating and agreeing to a reasonable set of specifications. No matter how many “experts” our Government brings in, these experts have no power to persuade or coerce all the unrelated parties to work together. Consider:

  • insurance companies with no incentive to cooperate with government contracted software developers,
  • a federal government filled with too many high officials with too many big egos and too many new and brilliant half-baked ideas,
  • millions of users trying to use the system on the front end while developers scramble to fix bugs on the back end,
  • and nobody in overall charge,

and the result is a recipe for continued failure.

Future historians may well declare the new healthcare.gov effort as the biggest, most spectacular failure in the history of IT projects.