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Keeping Obamacare’s Technology Roll-Out in Perspective

Software testing can only simulate user behavior and demand in this kind of large-scale technology deployment; it can’t really pattern what will happen.

The confusing and compromised technology roll-out of Obamacare has become an ongoing national news story, fodder for the Administration’s political opponents, a potential albatross for Democrats – and grist for late-night TV comedians. It’s also now humorous magazine-cover material.

But all kidding aside, I think it’s very important to keep things in perspective here.

So let’s begin with what went wrong – as best we can tell from the outside.

Well, for starters, there was clearly higher-than-anticipated demand for health insurance. Consumers who wanted to just shop weren’t able to browse without setting up accounts. Some pricing algorithms were faulty. And slow Web site response caused users to “try more function” – which contributed to system overload.

Okay, now let’s play the blame game. Where do we point the finger for all this?

The federal government didn’t fully recognize the pent-up demand for health insurance, and, as a result, it wasn’t ready when more people than expected showed up for the exchanges on the first day. This was surprising, at least to me, because, before the exchanges were announced, two of the biggest questions were whether Americans would understand that they needed to buy insurance, and whether they could navigate the “e-world.”

For their part, too many states decided to let the federal government handle things. When Washington DC originally came up with the idea of exchanges, they were supposed to be managed by the states. The state exchanges also got off to a fairly rocky start, but they are generally operating smoothly and handling widespread demand.

Now, let’s turn to a bigger question – does the implementation of government technology have to be filled with glitches?

Hmmm, maybe.

But let’s not forget that all large-scale technology implementation is probably going to be uneven at the start – whether it’s in the public or private sectors. Government is just a really big target.

More specifically, software testing can only simulate user behavior and demand in this kind of large-scale technology deployment; it can’t really pattern what will happen.

Finally, I think we have to examine the federal government’s procurement practices. The way the government purchases technology doesn’t necessarily get tax-payers the best talent to solve a problem.

Turning to the solution piece, I think we have to ask how the process can go better next time.

Having said that, I don’t want to be a Monday-morning quarterback. But I would suggest a staggered start that allowed the on-boarding of one state at a time. I would also recommend thinking through the browser versus buyer experiences. There needs to be a “Come back later; we’re experiencing high volumes” message that’s consumer-friendly. Lastly, there should be an “old-school” way of capturing information, like downloading a spreadsheet, or even a “smart form,” which loads some of the processing power off of the server. This data could be saved by the user and resubmitted later, for example.

In conclusion, how will all of this impact Obamacare?

I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure. But, from my perspective, there are two definite take-aways. First, the delay of the individual mandate will impact government revenue. And second, it’s a good sign that there’s resounding interest in purchasing health insurance among U.S. citizens.

Carla Corkern has almost 20 years of experience in science and technology and is currently Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board at Talyst, Inc. of Bellevue, Washington. Talyst is the leading provider of acute care hospital pharmacy automation software and hardware, and is building innovative systems to service long-term care facilities and correctional institutions. Prior to Talyst, Carla helped build several highly-successful technology companies, most recently as COO at Vykor, Inc. She also served as a key executive for Netegrity of Waltham, Massachusetts and DataChannel, Inc. of Bellevue. Carla founded and ran her own successful Systems Integration company in Dallas, Texas before moving to the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.S. in technical communication from Louisiana Tech University, and conducted graduate work at Southern Methodist University.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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