Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reactions to the Healthcare.gov "Obamacare" Website

I am not particularly sympathetic to the finger-pointing by the healthcare.gov contractors, that HHS should have left more time for testing the website before it went live, because they knew that there was a "drop dead" date by which the website had to go live. When I heard one of the contractors testify that their company didn't warn HHS of the need for a longer testing period, ostensibly because it wasn't their job, I had to roll my eyes. If you think it will take a month or two to integrate your work into website, and you know that the integration must be complete and tested inside of two weeks, it's your job to speak up - and to do so as soon as you realize that there's a problem.

I tried to use the website on day one. The site was clearly overwhelmed. My reaction to that? "I'll try again later." Yes, it would have been nice to get through the initial registration and set up an account, and it would have been nice had HHS anticipated the massive number of people who would try out the site when it went live, but this sort of thing happens.

What I didn't anticipate, when I went back to use the site, was an experience that suggested not only that the programmers didn't care about serve load, but that they built elements of the website that seemed to frequently and unnecessarily load the server. Oh, I'm sure lots of stuff is going on in the background, but when you're simply entering your personal information... why? And why so inefficiently? If the website is overwhelmed, it would make more sense to collect the information without doing all of the back-end data crunching and, when the basic information was collected, tell applicants, "It will take approximately X hours to process your application. We will notify you by email when your application has been processed. If you would like a text message, please enter your email address or cell phone number below."

When I went back to the site, I was able to complete the registration process, but received server error messages telling me to log back in later three times over that relatively short process. To the site's credit, I only lost data one time. One minor annoyance was having to enter the same information several times, with no ability to simply click a "same as last time"-type option to pull in the data already entered. Another was with the editing process. You have to enter SSNs for people who will be part of your application. For security reasons, the SSNs are obfuscated, with the last six numbers replaced by asterisks, when you edit the personal information for any person who is part of your application. But if you don't delete those asterisks and re-enter the SSN you will get an error message. That's the sort of inattention to detail that can make a website less pleasant to use - I wonder what percentage of applicants think that the asterisks reflect the website's retention of the data, such that it doesn't have to be re-entered, only to get that error message. If you have to enter the SSN anyway, don't populate the field with asterisks. Leave it blank, perhaps with an explanation, "For security reasons your SSN is not displayed on this page. Please re-enter the number before you proceed."

Another oddity is the navigation of the various steps of the application process. The site displays the steps you must take, and those you have not yet completed, but there's no "click here to continue" type prompt. You have to guess where to click. It's not that it's difficult to guess, but I've heard from a person who I would have thought would have figured it out and he was stymied.

When available plans are displayed, you can compare plans. You can select as many as you want to compare, but the comparison page only shows three plans at a time. The comparison page is decent, with the plan broken down into areas of coverage with subheadings for the elements of coverage within a given area. The problem is, if you choose the option to delete the plan in the first column, those subheadings go away making it e difficult to compare plans. They do not reappear even if you go to the next page of plans selected for comparison - for the subheadings to reappear you need to restart the comparison process.

Finally, when selecting a plan I received a large warning that the plan did not include dental coverage for minors. It did. The problem suggests that the data about each plan and its components is included in redundant fields, as if the plan can properly display the coverage it provides there is no reason why the verification algorithm would get it wrong.

Mistakes like these aren't just indicative of limited testing by HHS. They are indicative of limited testing by the contractors who developed the UI for the website, and more than that they suggest to me that the programmers were largely indifferent to the user experience. The delays in processing data suggest that programmers were largely, perhaps, completely, indifferent to server load.

I used the online chat service to verify that I could rely upon the plan description despite the warning message. Response time was prompt and the person providing support was professional and efficient.

If I were the programmer responsible for any of the problems on this site, I wouldn't be pointing fingers. I would be apologizing and redoubling my efforts to fix it. With Republican demagoguery on the law and now on the website, it's easy to point fingers but really - based upon the types of problems and issues I experienced, the programmers bear the lion's share of responsibility for the problems with the site they programmed.

If you want to browse basic pricing information for the sites included in healthcare.gov, but don't want to register yet, unofficial information is available courtesy of Stephen P. Morse.

1 comment:

  1. It can't be the programmers' fault, they were contractors and we all know that the private sector never makes mistakes it must have been the civil servants fault . . . ; )

    CWD

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