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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Health care website issues

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the government’s new health insurance website has run into problems, any more than the fact that Republicans are screaming their heads off about the snafu and claiming that it means the new health care law is a disaster.

Of course, the two have nothing to do with each other, but that doesn’t stop Fox News and others of that ilk from trying to score “points” on the administration.

It’s clear that the new health insurance system is going to be very popular despite its flaws and that its very popularity is helping cause problems on the website.

Bottom line is, it’s overloaded.

But apparently that’s not the only problem. There are glitches in the software that only showed up when the system went online and began to be hammered by hundreds of thousands of applicants.

Some experts claim it is overly complex ... I don’t know about that.

But I do know that in general, government software contractors have a long record of failing to deliver as promised ... more on that later.

As I said, we shouldn’t be surprised that CGI Federal, which built the federal HealthCare.gov website serving 36 states, and QSSI, which designed the part that verifies applicants’ income and other personal details, are now under fire for failing to satisfy the basic requirements of any large system: reliability and a seamless “people oriented” interface.

The contractors are blaming the overload and last-minute changes by the administration for the lack of the former.

CGI Vice President Cheryl Campbell said overwhelming interest from consumers triggered the website problems. “No amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature.”

True enough. No software test can thrash a system like real users.

Another problem, she claims, was a late decision to require consumers to create accounts — which means filling out pages of forms full of personal information — before they can browse health plans. Others are also criticizing the administration’s decision not to allow window-shopping, which is a standard feature of e-commerce sites, including Medicare.gov for seniors, before requiring registration.

That may be, but this mess is not the first for a large government computer project. Take the recent modernization of the Internal Revenue Service’s computer system for processing individual tax returns. The agency’s efforts to replace its aging database systems took more than a decade and so far has cost $3.7 billion.

And then there’s the air traffic control system, which has run into serious problems and may not be fully operational by the end of this year when the current system is supposed to be replaced.

The $2.1 billion system has misidentified aircraft, had trouble processing radar information and hampered controllers’ efforts to transfer responsibility for planes to other controllers.

Is there a pattern here?

Yes, and it has to do with the fact that any major computer system for the government is probably going to be larger and more complex than most civilians need.

More than 140 million Americans file tax returns, for example. And there are more than 87,000 flights in U.S. skies each day, each of which has to be scheduled for takeoff, passed off to a series of enroute controllers and then fitted in to a busy airport’s landing pattern.

And let’s not forget that while a database system for a bank or insurance company — or the IRS — can be huge and complex, an air traffic control system operates in real time, and cannot afford even a few minutes between updates.

Nonetheless, contractors promise a lot during the initial phases of a job — and we all know from personal experience that sometimes the final result falls short.

I have no doubt that eventually the new health care system’s program will be tweaked and brought up to specs — keep that in mind over the next few weeks as you listen to dozens of TV talking heads pontificating about the situation and predicting doom.

Remember, they don’t get paid to assure us that everything will be fine.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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