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The HealthCare.gov 'Tech Surge' Is Racing Against The Clock

Oct 21, 2013
Originally published on October 22, 2013 10:10 am

A "tech surge" is underway to help clean up the code of the error-plagued HealthCare.gov site. The Obama administration says this surge is made up of engineers from inside and outside government, but beyond saying that Presidential Innovation Fellows are involved, officials haven't specified who's making up those teams and what exactly they're doing to fix the systemic issues with the site.

Either way, tech industry leaders say the tech system — responsible for helping people in 36 states get health coverage — may have such deep flaws that it could take several months to fix them.

"You've got to think about going back to the drawing board in a way and figure out what you would change to streamline things," says John Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace, which builds, runs and hosts sites for everything from small startups to huge e-commerce companies.

"My sense is that it's just a very large integration project that didn't happen like it should have," he says. "I think there should have been a lot more testing. I think they even confirmed they did not do enough testing along the way."

To address a slew of issues discovered after the launch, programmers pushed key changes to the site over the weekend: Shoppers can now see health plans and prices in their region without going through a multiple-step registration. The calculator to find out whether you can get subsidies is improved. And the team added an "apply by phone" button on the home page.

"We are doing everything we can possibly do to get the websites working better, faster, sooner," President Obama said, at a press event Monday. "We've had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team and we're well into a tech surge to fix the problem."

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the government asked the site's main contractor, Montreal-based CGI Federal, to add staff and assign its "A team" to the efforts. The administration calls these and other fixers "the best and brightest," which led to an obvious question — where were these folks from the beginning?

"Why in the world wasn't the A team there for the past six months, or Oct. 1 at midnight when the problems started to come up? I don't understand that," says Alex Howard, a writer who focuses on the intersection of tech and government. He says at this point throwing more bodies at the problem may not be enough.

"Often, it's simply having the right coders, and having a dozen or two dozen or three dozen might be better than finding 500 people who aren't very good," he says.

Adding manpower to software projects could actually slow things down. The concept of the mythical man-month in software engineering says that the complexity of work actually spirals up once you start adding more people, because the task of coordinating them becomes problematic.

"It's still back to who is available to the federal government, who can get on a government contract. That's a big factor in all of this, and in that regard, it could take months," Engates says.

That's time the administration doesn't allow for. And time matters. The legal deadline to get health coverage is March 31, 2014. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the deadline depends on enrollment being accessible, suggesting that if website problems persist, deadlines may have to change.

The administration has yet to release numbers on how many Americans have fully enrolled in health insurance through the exchanges, saying it will release enrollment figures from the HealthCare.gov website monthly, starting in mid-November.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

That tech surge to fix the health care site is made up of engineers from inside and outside government. But tech industry leaders say the site's flaws are probably so deep, it could take months to fix them. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, that's time the programmers don't have.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: They were called glitches at first, but the persistent problems with healthcare.gov go way beyond quick-fix computer bugs.

JOHN ENGATES: You've got to think about, you know, sort of going back to the drawing board in a way and figuring out what you would change to streamline things.

HU: John Engates is chief technology officer at Rackspace, which builds, runs and hosts sites for everything from small start-ups to huge e-commerce company.

ENGATES: My sense is that it's just a very large integration project that didn't happen like it should have. I think there should have been a lot more testing. And I think they even confirmed that they didn't do enough testing along the way.

HU: To address a slew of issues discovered after the launch, programmers pushed key changes to the site over the weekend. Shoppers can now see health plans and prices in their region without going through a multiple-step registration. The calculator to find out whether you can get subsidies is improved. And the team added an apply by phone button on the homepage...

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDED MESSAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to the health insurance marketplace.

HU: ...since you can now complete a full registration over the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDED MESSAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's get started. What state do you live in?

HU: In the meantime, the president said he knows the site needs fixing.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are doing everything we can possibly do to get the websites working better, faster, sooner.

HU: A code clean-up crew has come to help.

OBAMA: We've had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team, and we're well into a tech surge to fix the problem.

HU: Details are vague. The administration hasn't said who is part of the tech surge except to say they are the, quote, "best and brightest."

ALEX HOWARD: Why in the world wasn't the A-team there from, you know, the past six months or, you know, on October 1st at midnight when these errors started to come up? I don't understand that.

HU: Alex Howard is a writer who focuses on the intersection of tech and government. He says, at this point, throwing more bodies at the problem may not be enough.

HOWARD: Often, it's simply finding the right coders and having a dozen or two dozen or three dozen might be better than having 500 people who aren't very good.

HU: Adding the wrong manpower to software projects could also slow things down. The concept of the mythical man month in software engineering governs that the complexity of work actually spirals up once you start adding more people because the task of coordinating them becomes problematic. Again, Rackspace's John Engates.

ENGATES: It's still back to who is available to the federal government, who can get on a government contract. I think sometimes that's a big factor in all of this. And in that regard, I think it could take months.

HU: Time matters. The legal deadline to get health coverage is March 2014. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said today the deadline depends on people being able to get enrolled. That suggest if website problems persist, deadlines may have to change. Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.