TOPICS > Health

High volume, complex software led to troubled launch of insurance exchanges

October 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Software bugs and system "bottlenecks" have plagued the new health insurance exchanges since their online launch. Will the site be able to handle the high volume of traffic? Ray Suarez talks to Craig Timberg of The Washington Post about the outlook for solving the site's problems.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We check back in on the troubled launch of the new online health care marketplaces known as exchanges. It’s been more than a week since they first opened. Millions of people have tried to navigate the federal exchange at healthcare.gov, but found major problems registering and enrolling.

It is the marketplace for 36 states that have not set up their own unique website.

Tonight, Ray Suarez looks at what’s known about these problems.

RAY SUAREZ: And for that, we turn to Craig Timberg, The Washington Post’s national technology reporter. He’s been trying to uncover what’s behind the complications so far.

Craig, welcome back.

If you sign on to your computer today and go to the exchange website, what are you likely to find today?

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 CRAIG TIMBERG, The Washington Post: Well, it’s certainly faster than it was this time last week. There are elements that work.

And we get the sense that some people are signing up successfully. We just don’t know how many because the government hasn’t told us yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Is part of the problem that you have to do the whole registration protocol just to shop around, just to take an exploratory look at what’s waiting for you?

CRAIG TIMBERG: It’s clearly one of the problems that some bottlenecks were built into the system.

When you go shopping on a website and buy dog food, you don’t have to wait for your credit card to go through. It will say, thanks for your order. If there’s a credit card problem, it will tell you later. This website isn’t built that way. You get stuck, you’re stuck, and can’t go anywhere.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier on, the Obama administration said that the slow times and the waits at the portals were evidence that a lot of people were trying to sign on and take a look.

People who were detractors of the law say it just wasn’t ready to be unveiled. Do we have any sense of whether it is sheer volume that is slowing things down?

CRAIG TIMBERG: I think both of those comments are basically true, right?

It’s clear that there are significant flaws in the way the system was built to handle the amount of traffic that it’s gotten. That’s evident. And, so, yes, if not that many people were interested, it probably would have worked fine. So, yes, you’re getting very high volumes, but they probably could have built it better, too.

RAY SUAREZ: Craig, do some of the problems stem from the complexity of the transactions that we’re asking this system to make? You’re coordinating different parts of government, putting in place tax credits, and recording your Social Security number?

Or are they more basic, people just not being able to, when they punch their information in, get properly served and get properly registered?

CRAIG TIMBERG: It’s really a combination of these things, right?

Because the system seems to be struggling to resolve some of these issues, to communicate across networks, that’s why people are having these problems. And a lot of the backups seem to be at the authentication moment, where you put in your name and your address. And the system is trying to figure out who you are and issue you an I.D.

There’s been a real stickiness about that. It’s been hard to untangle. And some of that may well have to do with all of the communicating and calculating the machinery has to do.

RAY SUAREZ: So when you propose to fix it, once you’re the government and you say, yes, we must make this better, is that tougher to do while still keeping the exchanges open? You’re trying to, in effect, repair a car while it’s driving down the highway, aren’t you?

CRAIG TIMBERG: Certainly. There’s no question this would have been easier to fix a month ago than it is now.

And even basic things like putting more server capacity on it so you can handle the crush of traffic, it’s a lot easier to do when people aren’t using it at the same time, or at least trying to use it.

RAY SUAREZ: Is some of this taking care of itself? Because there is six months of opening to take a look and buy your insurance, is the traffic smoothing out, putting less capacity on the system? Was it, in part, the rush to the opening door that happened on or around October 1?

CRAIG TIMBERG: Certainly, that’s part of it.

I mean, there’s an actual narrative to the releases of new technology. They’re almost always at least a little bit buggy, and lots of people use it, they expose the problems, and they get gradually ironed out. Now, it’s unusual to have a system fail as badly as this system is failing in its first few days, but these things do tend to get worked out with time, even when it’s Google or Apple.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any indication how long it’s going to take to fix this, so that any customer coming to the exchange window will be able to have a trouble-free, error-free experience?

CRAIG TIMBERG: My crystal ball fails me a little bit here, I’m afraid.

(LAUGHTER)

CRAIG TIMBERG: But I can tell you that tech people I have been speaking to on this story, they’re sort of fairly optimistic that these are solvable problems as you throw resources at it, that you can smooth it — you can smooth it out.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, what about those states that are running their own exchanges? In the case of the federal government, we’re talking about more than 30 different states that they’re coordinating the exchanges for.

But other places, like California New York, and others, are doing it themselves. Has the buyer experience been better in those places?

CRAIG TIMBERG: It really depends where you are. In some states, it’s gone pretty smoothly. Other states have had problems that closely resemble what the federal government has had.

And so it’s a complex piece of programming that they have tried to put together, and the states in some cases have had similar problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Is anybody, either the states running their own or the Obama administration, saying how many Americans have actually taken advantage of this?

CRAIG TIMBERG: So, some states have been reporting numbers. The federal government has not yet. We’re supposed to get some sort of number in November, which, if you look at your calendar, is still a little ways away.

RAY SUAREZ: And then we will have a better idea of just how well we’re handling — handling the crush at the front door?

CRAIG TIMBERG: I think it will be hard to tell how we were handling it in early to mid-October, but I think we will have a better sense then if the problems have been ironed out substantially enough that the system basically works.

RAY SUAREZ: Craig Timberg of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

CRAIG TIMBERG: It’s my pleasure.