Has Obamacare Been Rescued by the Administration's 'Tech Surge'? Don't Bet On It



Is Obamacare back in action? For the last two months, Healthcare.gov, the federally run insurance portal at the heart of the law, has experienced numerous technical troubles. The administration vowed to fix those problems by the end of November, and today, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it had met the goal of making sure that the site "worked smoothly" for the "vast majority of users."

In a conference call this morning, a spokesperson for HHS said, "we believe we have met that goal." A six-page progress report released by the administration this morning touts technical progress as well as managerial improvements, declaring that the team making the improvements is now "operating with private sector velocity and efficiency."

Anyone else catch the irony there? Set up a vast, government-managed tech operation, watch it fail—and then, as it attempts to reboot itself, boast of private-sector quality work?  (Also, let's not forget that the original failed work was in fact done by private contractors working under the managerial bumbling of the federal health bureaucracy.)

So it's all fixed, and Obamacare's going to be great, right? Not so fast. The White House's stated goal of improving the website so that 80 percent of users can get all the way through the system still means that one in five users won't make it through the digital gauntlet. It also claims that the site is stable and accessible 90 percent of the time, a figure it only gets by excluding the hours of scheduled maintenance it undergoes each day.

And that's if the website even works as well as the administration says it's supposed to. Which is, at best, a very big if. According to The Washington Post, some progress has been made, but the techies and bureaucrats attempting to patch together the site have not fully met their own internal goals for performance yet. That would certainly fit the pattern. All throughout the development of the online insurance exchange system, the administration has claimed that Obamacare's tech is working, or just about to work—but its promises have repeatedly been proven wrong.

Given its history, the administration's claims have to be taken with a cargo ship full of salt—especially since there's no good way to independently confirm that the website is working as well as the administration claims. You just have to take their word for it.

Even if the website appears to be working on the user end, there's no guarantee that less visible functions are performing adequately. Insurers have been reporting dropped or incorrectly transmitted enrollment data since the exchanges launched. And according to The New York Times, the repair team prioritized front-end fixes for consumers over accurate insurance-company connections. So the site might appear to be working just fine, until you try to actually use the insurance that you thought you purchased. 

These are just the known problems. There are plenty more opportunities for technical troubles down the line, particularly because when administration officials say the website is working better, they mean the portion of the website that's actually been built. Yet by the reckoning of a senior Obamacare tech official, some 30 to 40 percent of the exchange functionality has yet to been constructed, including some of the crucial insurer payment systems. ("It's not built, let alone tested," one insurance industry official told The Washington Post.") So the best possible scenario here is that the 70 percent of the site that's been built works for about 80 percent of the people who want to use it.