Will the Nov. 30 Deadline Promise be the Straw That Broke the Camel's Back?

Will the Nov. 30 Deadline Promise be the Straw That Broke the Camel's Back?
October 30, 2013

Nancy J. Thorner

Nancy J. Thorner is a writer, cellist, and Tea Party activist based in suburban Chicago. (read full bio)

It was on Friday, October 25th, that Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary Kathleen Sebelius, speaking at a panel in San Antonio, urged potential healthcare consumers to disregard ObamaCare website horror stories and partisan bickering over the law. In Sebelius' words when asked what advise she would give to those seeking federal healthcare plans: 

"Sign up," she said, "Don't believe what you've heard. Just check it out, look at the prices, look at the plans."

Sebelius further indicated that "significant improvements" have already been made and that administration officials vowed to have the site fully repaired by Nov. 30 (two months after the October 1st roll-out), and fully workable in time for users to buy the coverage that takes effect on January 1st.

It was several days earlier on Tuesday, October 22nd, during a CNN interview that Kathleen Sebelius informed Dr. Sanjay Gupta that President Obama had no warning of issues with the Website before its roll-out.

It's seems too much of a coincidence that once again we have an uninformed President Obama, which seems to be happening with regularity whenever an issue surfaces that might harm Obama's image or his political standing.  The most recent incident, according to a report on Sunday, Oct. 27th by a German newspaper, was that President  Obama knew his intelligence service was eavesdropping on Merkel as long ago as 2010. This contradicts reports of Obama telling Angela Merkel that he was unaware of the eavesdropping.

It will be interesting to hear what Sebelius has to say about the website roll out disaster when she testifies in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this coming week.  On the government end, construction of the disastrous Healthcare.gov website was overseen by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMs), a division Kathleen Sebelius' Dept. of Health and Human Services.  Has Ms. Sebelius no culpability for a website that was basically untested before it was rolled out on Oct. 1st, with known problems existing prior to its rollout? 

 On the same day (Friday, October 25) Kathleen Sebelius urged Americans to sign up for healthcare and not to be swayed by the horror stories they have been hearing, it was reported that a Princeton classmate -- Toni Townes-Whitley, Princeton class of '85 -- was a senior vice president of CGI that earned the no-bid contract to build the $678 million Obamcare enrollment website of Healthcare.gov.  Although four companies submitted bids, a senior vice president for the company testifying last week before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, could not name those companies or explain why only CGI's bid was considered. 

Stranger yet is, as reported in the Washington Examiner by Richard Pollock on Thursday, October 10, is that the Canadian provincial health officials last year fired the parent company of CGI Federal, the prime contractor of the Healthcare.gov website.  CGI Group was terminated in September of 2012 by the Ontario government health agency after the firm had missed three years of deadlines and had failed to deliver the province's flagship online medical registry.  The online registry was supposed to be up and running by June of 2011. 

After a tough couple of weeks following the roll-out of Healthcare.gov, President Obama, realizing that his signature policy achievement was being threatened with derailment, bought some time over the weekend when in his weekly address of Saturday, October 26, he informed the American people:

"As you may have heard, the site isn't working the way it's supposed to yet.  In the coming weeks, we are going to get it working as smoothly as it's supposed to."

Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients, appointed on Tuesday, October 22 to figure out how to manage the complicated fixes for the website, had the following to say when he unexpectedly participated In a conference call with health reporters on Friday, October 25.  Although a deadline was given of Nov. 30 to have the website up and running, Zients cautioned there was a lot of work to do:  "By the end of November, healthcare.gov will work smoothly for he vast majority of users." 

Zients further said that he had hired a "general contractor" to manage the many contractors on the project, and had developed a "punch list' of dozens of problems to address, including sending error-ridden application data to health insurers and improving basic user experience.

But does it serve the interests of the administration to set a Nov. 30 deadline?  It might buy the administration and tech experts time to iron out the bugs in the website, but the American people are likely to hold the administration to that date.  Even when and if the website is fixed, it will be a problem to lure those people back who have had bad experiences with the website. 

According to many tech experts, the White House faces a tall order in fixing the ObamaCare website. 

Jon Wu, an analyst and co-founder of consumer finance site Value Penguin, had this to say:

"You can probably make corrections in the code, but if they need months to test the process before, I don't see how you can say that you're going to be able to have it up and running in a couple weeks."

Based on public reports, Wu related how many of the glitches appear to be the result of problems in how different government systems interact with each other.  Those problems are more difficult to identify than simple errors in code or a shortage of server capacity.  Said Jon Wu, "It's definitely past the point where it's a superficial problem."   

Wu also questioned how useful the "surge" of additional information technology experts will be.  Noting that any new programmers will have to be brought up to speed on the existing code, Wu remarked,  "You can't throw a hundred surgeons into a room and expect it to take one one-hundredth of the time." 

More insight over the ObamaCare website glitch came from Clay Johnson, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow and the CEO of the Department of Technology.   Johnson nailed the problems existing in HealthCare.gov from the way the government hires outside contractors.  Because of the lengthy forms and technical language, the firms rewarded have the best lawyers rather than those firms with the best programmers. 

Also noted by Clay Johnson was a host of regulations that make it more difficult to build a government website than a private one, i.e., regulations requiring that all government websites be accessible to the blind and meet a host of security requirements.  These are well intended regulations but lead to many projects coming in late, over-budget, and full of technical problems.

Jim Geraghty of National Review, in referencing Jeffrey Zients' pledge that ObamaCare.gov will be working by the end of November, cited in his articleHHS Probably Can't Fix It by the End of November, and That's Probably Too Late Anyway, ten estimates offered by tech experts outside of government of how long it would take to fix the exchange websites to get them up and running and functional.  None of them were positive about the fix happening by Nov. 30.

Technical experts told USA TODAY:  "The federal health care exchange was built using 10-year-old technology that may require constant fixes and updates for the next six months an the eventual overhaul of the entire system."

Yuval Levin, after talking to sources in the insurance industry:   "No one wants to say how long it might take, and no one would share with me what estimates they might be getting from their contractors (whom they no longer trust anyway), but there has so far been relatively little progress and it seems like everyone involved is preparing for a process that will take months, not weeks."

And from Bruce Webster, NR cruiser and increasingly frequent Morning Jolt contributor:  "You need to have strict controls on what changes are allowed to be made to the source code through the alpha and beta phases just before release.  If you do not handle this process rigorously, you'll just keep oscillating for weeks, months, or even years.  I've seen it happen time and again."  

Bruce Webster was told by his father who worked for nearly 30 years in electronics in the Navy:  "If you don't have time to do it right, will you have time to do it over?  That is exactly the problem that the Obama Administration caused for itself ('We needed five years but only had two'), and it is exactly the problem that they face going forward."

Coming on the heel of how web experts are addressing the failure of the HealthCare.gov and the probability that it can be fixed by October 1st was a report of yet another glitch that happened this past Sunday (Oct. 27) on the federal government's online portal to buy health insurance, when a conduit for verifying the personal information of people applying for benefits under the law went down in a failure.  The website failure was blamed on outside contractor Terremark.  A spokesman for Verizon Enterprise Solution, of which Terremark is a part, told the Associated Press,

"Our engineers have been working with HHS and other technology companies to identify and address the root cause of the issue." 
Terremark is the data services hub that supplies tax information to websites run by the U.S and 13 states to sell medical coverage. 

It is fair to ask whether the HealthCare.gov website glitches are only the 'tip of the iceberg."

Republican concerns expressed by Fred Upton (R-Mich), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman, in this week's Republican address were directed on whether enrollment glitches will provider payment glitches?  Furthermore, will patients show up at their doctor's office or hospital only to be told they aren't in the system?  Also of concern is whether personal information Americans provide as part of the enrollment process will be safe from cyber hackers and identity theft.

Fred Upton continued to reflect about the need to pay a fine if the deadline was not met, given that the law requires Americans not covered by healthcare insurance to sign up so they're enrolled by the end of March 2014,

"How can the administration punish innocent Americans by forcing them to buy a product many cannot afford, from a system that does not work?" 

Democratic senators who spent more than two weeks opposing Republicans' request for a delay in Obamacare have suddenly seen the light.  In tough battleground states (swing states) four senators have signed on to Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's letter of October 22 sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking that the open enrollment date by extended past March 3, 2013. 

 Bad choices do have a way of boomeranging back and hitting us on the head, even Democrats!

[Originally published on the Illinois Review]

Nancy J. Thorner

Nancy J. Thorner is a writer, cellist, and Tea Party activist based in suburban Chicago. (read full bio)