Is the Administration Misleading People on Obamacare's Web Failures, Or Is It Just Incompetent?



When Obamacare's health exchanges rolled out last week to myriad glitches and, in the 36 federally facilitated exchanges, widespread inaccessibility, the Obama administration had a ready excuse: too much traffic. But the too-much-traffic story, along with repeated promises to fix online enrollment problems, hasn't held up.

"We found out that there have been times this morning where the site's been running more slowly than it normally will," President Obama said last Tuesday, the day the exchanges opened. "The reason is because more than one million people visited HealthCare.gov before 7:00 in the morning."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius put a positive spin on the website malfunctions. They were a sign of too much traffic, she said, "a great problem to have." 

Throughout the week, administration officials touted web traffic figures: 4.7 million visitors in the first day, 8.1 million by Friday. And they insisted, even through the weekend, that unexpectedly high numbers of visitors were the root cause of the site's problems. "These bugs were functions of volume," the administration's top technology officer, Todd Park, told USA Today over the weekend. "Take away the volume and it works."

Administration officials also promised repeatedly that the problems would be fixed soon: "We expect to resolve these issues in the coming hours," one federal health official told Reuters on October 1, the first day the exchanges opened.

The issues weren't resolved. Two days later, the Department of Health and Human Services assured people once again that updates were in the works, and the user experience was getting better.

Not that much better, however, because on Friday afternoon, the administration announced that online enrollment functionality in the federal exchanges would be suspended for several hours each night over the weekend. Starting at 1 a.m. each night, health coverage sign up would not be available for several hours. The downtime would make way for big improvements in system functionality, an administration press release claimed. "We expect that Monday, less than a week after the marketplace opening, there will be significant improvements in the online consumer experience."

Now it's Monday, and the system is as buggy as ever. It's clear that many, perhaps most, people still can't even create user accounts. Or if they can, they can't actually use them to log into the federal exchange system. And if they get that far, they end up stalled elsewhere in the process. "The federal website, meant to serve Americans in 36 states, was still delivering error messages to users trying to create an account saying the 'system was unavailable,'" noted Bloomberg News in report a late this morning.

Both the online assistance system and the call-in help lines are practically useless. The call-center workers can't log into the system either, and don't even pretend to be able to help callers. The LiveChat system can't answer basic application questions, and just directs users to the call-in system.

It's increasingly difficult to pin the problems on traffic overload. 

The administration's top tech adviser was still saying on Saturday that the problem was primarily a result of unexpected volume. But even some tech-savvy health law supporters didn't buy it. One pro-Obamacare web developer told The Washington Post over the weekend, "I'm a very very big supporter of the health-care act, but I don't buy the argument that the load was too unexpected." By Sunday, federal officials had admitted that there were deeper technical problems to be resolved. "Federal officials said Sunday the online marketplace needed design changes, as well as more server capacity to improve efficiency on the federally run exchange that serves 36 states," The Wall Street Journal reported last night.

The buggy, virtually unusable enrollment system is no longer a great problem to have. "We can do better and we are working around the clock to do so," an HHS spokesperson told Bloomberg.

And those weekend shutdowns that were supposed to clear the way for a functioning system? They didn't do the trick either. Federal health officials announced this afternoon that enrollment functionality in the federal exchanges would go offline once again tonight starting at 1 a.m. (Given how few people seem to be able to access the system, it hardly makes a difference.)

Despite repeated promises that the implementation process was on schedule and the exchange system would be ready on time, it wasn't. It wasn't fixed within a few hours, or a few days, or most of a week—even with hours of offline time for retooling. And the massive traffic volume that was supposed to be responsible for the site problems was, at most, only one part of the problem. 

So if the administration knew that the problems were due to more than just traffic, and that they would not be resolved in the first week, then they weren't telling the truth. And if the administration did not know, then that suggests they may lack the understanding or capability to easily resolve the technical flaws with the exchanges. Either way, at this point, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the administration is either intentionally misleading people, or incompetent, or both.