Obamacare IT

I have been enjoying the catastrophe that is the Obamacare rollout, of course. But beyond pure schadenfreude, it’s really interesting how the catastrophe came to be. The Obamacare web site goes beyond garden-variety government incompetence. It was the Obama administration’s own political malfeasance that brought about the disaster:

First, out of purely political considerations, the administration delayed issuing key rules:

To avoid giving ammunition to Republicans opposed to the project, the administration put off issuing several major rules until after last November’s elections. . .

The biggest contractor, CGI Federal, was awarded its $94 million contract in December 2011. But the government was so slow in issuing specifications that the firm did not start writing software code until this spring, according to people familiar with the process.

Second, the Obama administration’s deliberate lack of transparency was a key factor in the site not working. Consider this astonishing report:

As late as the last week of September, officials were still changing features of the Web site, HealthCare.gov, and debating whether consumers should be required to register and create password-protected accounts before they could shop for health plans.

They were still changing the fundamental design just a couple of weeks before the site launched! As it turns out the design point they were changing is key to why the system failed. The site won’t tell you anything at all without you providing personal information, which means that it cannot passively serve any pages other than the front page itself. In order to use the site at all, you need to put a heavy load on the system.

Why would they use such a manifestly foolish design? Political considerations:

“Healthcare.gov was initially going to include an option to browse before registering,” report Christopher Weaver and Louise Radnofsky in the Wall Street Journal. “But that tool was delayed, people familiar with the situation said.” Why was it delayed? “An HHS spokeswoman said the agency wanted to ensure that users were aware of their eligibility for subsidies that could help pay for coverage, before they started seeing the prices of policies.”

The Obama administration does not want people to see the true cost of health insurance on the exchanges, they only want them to see the prices after subsidy. And as a direct consequence of their concealment of Obamacare’s true cost, the system doesn’t work. It’s poetic justice. (Except that the public are the ones who are ultimately punished.)

(UPDATE: More on this issue here.)

But wait, there’s more!

Third, the contractors who were hired to implement the system were selected not on the basis of IT experience, but out of political considerations. Most of the contractors were Beltway bandits, notable mainly for their lobbying prowess. The firm that did the site’s visual design was founded by the design manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. But of greatest significance is the system integrator. They didn’t have one:

One highly unusual decision, reached early in the project, proved critical: the Medicare and Medicaid agency assumed the role of project quarterback, responsible for making sure each separately designed database and piece of software worked with the others, instead of assigning that task to a lead contractor.

Some people intimately involved in the project seriously doubted that the agency had the in-house capability to handle such a mammoth technical task of software engineering while simultaneously supervising 55 contractors. An internal government progress report in September 2011 identified a lack of employees “to manage the multiple activities and contractors happening concurrently” as a “major risk” to the whole project.

While some branches of the military have large software engineering departments capable of acting as the so-called system integrator, often on medium-size weapons projects, the rest of the federal government typically does not . . .

Why did they make such an unusual and ultimately disastrous decision? They were concerned that if they hired an outside contractor, Republicans might be able to subpoena information on the process:

Officials feared that if they called on outsiders to help with the technical details of how to run a commerce website, those companies could be subpoenaed by Hill Republicans, the former aide said. So the task fell to trusted campaign tech experts.

Note that voluntarily sharing information with Congress was out of the question; they were concerned with fighting subpoenas. And that lack of transparency directly contributed to the project’s failure.

Fourth, the administration wants to blame a lack of funds for the disaster:

Dr. Donald M. Berwick, the administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2010 and 2011, said the time and budgetary pressures were a constant worry. “The staff was heroic and dedicated, but we did not have enough money, and we all knew that,” he said in an interview on Friday.

That’s pretty silly, since the cost overruns were astronomical; they ended up spending over half a billion dollars building the system. But let’s suppose we take it seriously. This is intended as an indictment of Republicans, who obviously weren’t going to appropriate any additional funds for Obamacare. On the contrary, to the extent to which it’s true at all, it’s an indictment of the administration.

They want you to forget that when Democrats rammed this turkey down our throats, they included a billion-dollar slush fund for Obamacare’s implementation. They had plenty of money, but they blew it on who-knows-what? (Literally. $67 million of it is simply missing.) After spending half a billion on the site, and blowing the billion-dollar slush fund, they now have the chutzpah to claim they didn’t have enough money.

In summary, Obamacare is failing not just because of government incompetence. It is failing because the Obama administration, for all of its determination to keep Obamacare in place, has priorities other than actually making it work.

(Previous post.)

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