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Problems with Website.001

Locals watch problems with Obamacare website

Too many last-minute changes, unrealistic deadlines might have caused the disastrous rollout of the healthcare.gov. The question now is how to fix it.

As Obama Administration officials and its technology experts try to work out the mess that is the Affordable Care Act website, one website designer in the Inland Empire believes he’s identified what might be the site’s biggest problem.

Daniel Hickey, director of creative advertising for Hickey Marketing Group in Redlands, says he knows the problem because he deals with it all the time, albeit on a smaller scale: too many last-minute changes to the website, without adjusting the deadlines that were established when the project began.

Whether it’s a federal government site getting millions of hits a day or a site for a mom and pop store that might only get a few looks in a week, the principle is the same: deadlines should be flexible, and a site’s coding and navigational systems should be kept as simple as possible.

Any other approach leads to chaos, Hickey said.

“We deal with that sort of thing all the time,” said Hickey, whose company specializes in website design and maintenance for small businesses. “It’s very common in the website design business.”

To illustrate his point, Hickey drew an analogy of someone building a one-story house. After the materials have been ordered and construction begins, that person decides he wants a three-story house, but he still wants the house delivered on the original timeline.

“From what I’m reading and hearing, that’s what happened here,” Hickey said in regard to the disastrous launch earlier this month of healthcare.gov. “They had a plan in place, everything was ready to go, but different agencies kept wanting to add things, and they went ahead and launched it anyway,” Hickey said. “Now they have a big mess, and it’s not clear how long it will take to fix it.”

Hickey cited an Associated Press story that described computer programmers hired by the Obama Administration who were working into the wee hours night after night, writing and rewriting computer codes to meet requests for last-minute changes.

Most of those requests – including a demand that the site be able to link into other government sites – came from administration officials and or outside contractors, according to the report.

The story, based largely on interviews with anonymous sources, described healthcare.gov as a “mind-numbingly complex” system that was put together by programmers who had to race to meet the website’s opening date. The result was a website that was tested by government officials, not by private developers with more expertise in designing a large website, particularly one designed to link into other government websites.

Hickey believes the programmers might have made another mistake before they launched the website: components of the system were tested individually, but not as a unit to see if everything worked together.

“That would be like testing the individual parts of car, but not driving it to see if the whole thing works like it’s supposed to,” Hickey said.

Healthcare.gov processes enrollments for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, for consumers in 36 states.

Since it opened Oct. 1, the website has been plagued by glitches, including an inability to get into the site, lengthy delays, multiple error messages and incorrect information provided to insurance companies.

People seeking information about available insurance policies have also had a difficult time reaching other government websites – the IRS site, for example, to confirm their annual income – from the Obamacare site.

The state-run websites, including Covered California, have generally operated better, according to administration officials.

During a hearing last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chairman Fred Upton, R-Michigan, called the federal website’s launch “nothing short of a disaster,” and noted that various contractors had assured the government that healthcare.gov was ready to run properly right before it launched.

At an Oct. 21 news conference, President Obama admitted that the website had been plagued by multiple problems since it was unveiled, but said the administration had launched a “tech surge” to fix the problems.

“Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed,” Obama said during a Monday news conference in the White House Rose Garden. “The product, the health insurance, is good. The prices are good. It is a good deal. People don’t just want it, they’re showing up to buy it.”

Maybe so, but at the moment a lot of consumers can’t get into the website to find out whether it’s a good deal for them, and fixing all of its problems could take time, according to an information technology consulting firm in Los Angeles with multiple clients in U.S government.

“Five million lines of code have to be changed,” said Swapan Nag, chief executive officer of NAG Inc., which provides support systems for data visualization systems. “That won’t be easy, and I don’t think they’re going to be able to do that quickly.

In its haste to get the site up and running quickly, the administration might have erred by bringing in too many agencies to design and build the website, rather than going out to bid and selecting one administrator, according to Nag.

“They might have been better off settling on one company,” said Nag, whose clients include NASA, the State and Defense departments and the Department of Homeland Security. “When you have a massive structure that’s trying to gather that much information, everything piles up and it’s too big to work.”

Administration officials might have a point when they say overuse has been one of the website’s problems. Nearly 500,000 people successfully signed up for Obamacare, either through healthcare.gov or a state exchange, during the program’s initial rollout, according to the White House.

But Nag believes the federal site has been plagued by a mistake that was made before it was built: no one sat down and asked people who were going to use site how they would like it to operate.

“A website has problems when it’s not user-driven,” Nag said. “We always sit down with our clients, the users, and find out what they want us to develop for them. I also think the site is too complicated. I’ve navigated it, and it’s confusing. When you need more than one page to explain a site, people get confused.”

About 600,000 people in the Inland Empire are expected to sign up for Obamacare, so the problems with the site are having a local impact, said Dimitrios Alexiou, Inland Empire regional vice president for the Hospital Association of Southern California.

“I think the mistakes were made in the planning, and I just hope that they can get them fixed quickly,” Alexiou said. “But you have to remember that Obamacare is a major change, the biggest change since Medicare in 1965 and it’s a big jolt to the system. There were always going to be challenges.”

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