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Editorial: Obamacare bugs troubling

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 23, 2013 5:00 AM

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In this day and age, it seems easier to get something done online than it is to do in the physical world. Buying airplane tickets? Ordering a pizza? Emptying your bank account on Amazon? It’s all only a few mouse clicks away.

Savvy web developers understand that the user interface and experience can make or break a website, despite how valuable its services may be. Web users can be easily turned off by overly complex site design, sluggish loading times, and broken hyperlinks. As the character of Mark Zuckerberg says in The Social Network, “If those servers are down for even a day, our entire reputation is irreversibly destroyed.”

It’s a reality that has faced the new healthcare.gov website, which was overwhelmed by traffic, charged with the cardinal web-sin of outdated site design, and most importantly of all, has failed to function even on a basic level.

The government-run website offers side-by-side comparisons of different insurance options under the Affordable Care Act — when it’s up. The numerous technical issues that have plagued the site since its launch have deterred all but the most persistent of customers, or even customer (singular) as the case may be in Iowa.

According to the Des Moines Register, Edward Voss, a 60-year-old Iowa City man, may have been the first in the state to successfully purchase a health-care insurance plan from healthcare.gov, three days after it opened. Even after the web forms were filled out, Voss wasn’t certain that he had made it through the system until he received a congratulatory message from the plan’s provider, CoOpportunity Health, telling him he was the first customer from the site.

Voss’s story reflects a national trend as well. After an initial burst of web visitors that caused the site to drop offline, traffic to the exchange declined dramatically. According to Kanter U.S. Insights, a consulting and information group, the number of unique visitors to healthcare.gov fell 88 percent between the day that it opened, Oct. 1, and Oct 13. Even more damning, less than half of a percent of the site’s visitors were able to purchase health insurance during the first week.

The fact that healthcare.gov has been available since the start of the month and has successfully completed so few transactions is problematic, especially considering the scope of the Affordable Care Act.

Seven percent of the population — or 24 million Americans — are expected to obtain health plans through the insurance marketplaces by 2023. And yet new bug reports and subsequent apologies from officials behind the site are becoming commonplace. In fact, on Monday President Obama addressed the site’s shortcomings directly.

“Nobody’s madder than me about the website not working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed,” he said at the White House.

To be fair, the site isn’t the only way to purchase health insurance for those that need it. One can sign up by phone or in person as well. But the site is the most visible portal to the services provided under the Affordable Care Act and the one touted the most by the Obama administration. If the site’s failings continue, it will reflect poorly on the act as a whole. Hopefully, workers will be able to bring the site up to full functionality before it is regarded as a failed modernization effort by an out-of-touch government.


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