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Posted by on Oct 11, 2013 in Health care, Legislation, Media

Explaining the Epic Fail of

Explaining the Epic Fail of

Head_Into_Brick_Wall.jpgSince October 1st, I’ve tried unsuccessfully—along with an unknown number of Americans—to log onto, with the hope that I might be able to find better healthcare coverage at a lower cost. After finally being able to create a user name and password and enter answers to security questions (the drop-down menus for which were originally blank), I have not been able to get any further. My most recent attempt to log on produced a completely blank, white screen—an image I have never seen in my experience on the World Wide Web (I didn’t even get a “404” error message).

The problem with apparently cannot be chalked up to server overload alone—an inexcusable excuse, anyway, by Kathleen Sibelius of the HHS. (First of all, you can’t argue that we need an Affordable Care Act on the basis of the fact that 24 million Americans are without health insurance and then turn around and claim that you didn’t anticipate that millions of Americans would attempt to get health insurance through the ACA website.) This governmental cluster f–k is evidently the fine work of CGI Federal, a Canadian IT company that has been consistently awarded multimillion-dollar US-government contracts, including the back-end creation of the very broken The cost to the US taxpayer for this particular waste of time and effort is upwards of $500 million, according to some sources. Here are a few articles to aggravate yours and my hypertension.

Andrew Couts: “We paid over $500 million for the Obamacare sites and all we got was this lousy 404

Couts writes,

It’s been one full week since the flagship technology portion of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) went live. And since that time, the befuddled beast that is has shutdown, crapped out, stalled, and mis-loaded so consistently that its track record for failure is challenged only by [that of] Congress.

The reason for this nationwide headache apparently stems from poorly written code, which buckled under the heavy influx of traffic that its engineers and administrators should have seen coming. But the fact that can’t do the one job it was built to do isn’t the most infuriating part of this debacle – it’s that we, the taxpayers, seem to have forked up more than $500 million of the federal purse to build the digital equivalent of a rock.

The Department for Better Technology, Inc, a CGI competitor, writes on the company blog:

Not only did the site not scale at launch, it was riddled with errors, and it clearly wasn’t ready to go. Just taking a look at the code that runs the site, you can see that it’s riddled with “Lorem Ipsum Dolor”— the placeholder text that web designers and developers use to demonstrate designs before copy has been written. Reddit’s gone wild with speculation about who built it and, of course, legions of IT experts have come out questioning the architecture of the website.

The contractors who made this website were at best sloppy, and at worst unqualified for the job. So, why? How did this happen to arguably the most important and lasting website of this president’s administration? And why did such sloppiness cost the taxpayer, from what I can tell, over 600 Million Dollars?

And yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported,

Information technology experts who examined the website…said the site appeared to be built on a sloppy software foundation. Such a hastily constructed website may not have been able to withstand the online demand last week, they said.

Engineers at Web-hosting company Media Temple Inc. found a glut of stray software code that served no purpose they could identify. They also said basic Web-efficiency techniques weren’t used, such as saving parts of the website that change infrequently so they can be loaded more quickly.

A tangential problem appears to be how government contracts are awarded to the private sector, particularly with respect to IT services. Here’s NPR’s investigation: “Health Exchange Tech Problems Point to a Thornier Issue.”

But why, in all seriousness, would the US government ever outsource such a high-profile IT job to a Canadian firm, while this country has pioneered the world’s unquestionable milestones in technology and large-scale, web-based services—like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon–to name just a few high-profile examples? Sadly, if history is any guide, the issue of fixing won’t be an American job; our government will simply throw even more money at the Canadian firm to fix its colossal blunder.

Addendum: The WSJ reports today that the designers of are now offering some comparative shopping information before you have to sign up. Although, the paper writes, “While [the window-shopping function] does give consumers a bit of new information, it’s still too bare bones to give consumers a sense of how different plans stack up.”

Addendum to addendum: Note that this “new” window-shopping calculator is not all that different (and probably less precise) that the calculator already offered by Kaiser.

10/14/13 addendum: Slate takes a renewed shot at explaining the problems of

  1. One or more server failures
  2. Too many IT cooks (contractors) and too many key IT cooks not working well together (or not at all)
  3. Poor overall management of the IT cooks
  4. A dilatory government that waited too long to provide specifications to the IT cook(s)
  5. An overly ambitious and necessarily complex back-end web design (eg, requirements to connect with the IRS, the INS, etc)
  6. IT cooks selected by cronyism and an embedded, inefficient, and bureaucratic procurement process
  7. The nonnegotiable launch date of October 1st
bmartin (1082 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.