Menu

Programming

$93M ObamaCare website may face months of glitches, experts warn

Healthcare.gov website down.jpg

A screenshot of the HealthCare.gov website, which has experienced numerous glitches since it was launched Oct. 1.

The $93 million website launched to process customers through the new ObamaCare marketplace may experience significant technical glitches for months, computer software experts told FoxNews.com.

“I wouldn’t rule out that possibility,” said George Edwards, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Southern California. It all depends on when they identify the bugs, where they are, and if they can be resolved easily, he said -- all while the site is running and open to millions of customers. 

“[It's] like trying to repair a car while someone is driving it,” he told FoxNews.com.

Not only was the site still experiencing substantial problems Wednesday, a week after launching, but the White House had reportedly been aware for months that the HealthCare.gov website had flaws and might not be ready to launch. Yet officials insisted on the Oct. 1 roll out anyway.

'The user interface was something that was tested least or not done right -- or both.'

- James Turner, a member of the technical staff at software firm Beeonics, Inc.

Robert Laszewski, a consultant with clients in the healthcare industry participating in the new exchange, said insurance companies were complaining “loudly” that the site had experienced problems before the launch. “People were pulling out their hair,” he told The Washington Post Wednesday.

"How can we tax people for not buying a product from a website that doesn't work?" Speaker of the House John Boehner asked.

Edwards and other software engineering experts said that a significant number of issues appeared to relate to the “front end” or user experience. This typically means there is something wrong with the basic construction of the software, in particular, the Javascript code that activates within the browser.

“I was trying to use it as a consumer … and I could see the Javascript errors,” said James Turner, a member of the technical staff at software company Beeonics and contributing editor at O’Reilly.com. He told FoxNews.com that he tried to apply in order to compare insurance prices numerous times and in four different browsers -- all to no avail. 

“I’ve been a software developer for 33 years now,” he said. “After awhile when something is not working right, you just kind of know the reasons why things are failing. It looks like the user interface was something that was tested least or not done right, or both.”

In addition to the high volume of people who accessed Healthcare.gov when it was launched on Oct. 1, crippling the site on and off for the first few days, complaints have evolved around users’ inability to create new accounts, or once they do, not being able to log on and move forward with choosing a health plan -- the primary function of the site.

Attempts to create new usernames and passwords have resulted in multiple spouses and duplicate family members attached to accounts, for instance. Sometimes, the site just freezes up and the user doesn’t know whether to back up, wait, or keep pressing keys to prompt the system.

In short, it’s been a nightmare, for users and the government offices that have had to field the questions and wisecracks from the political and technical community who say they should have anticipated the problems all along.

“What we have here is the perfect storm in software development,” Turner said. He said the heavy volume slowing down the back-end servers was “understandable,” yet “the fundamental problem with this not working right is less forgivable.”

"One of the oldest sayings in the software industry is that you have time, money and features -- or quality -- and you get to pick any two. Money and features, but late, or time and features, but over-budget,” he told FoxNews.com.

“Something had to give. That thing was quality.”

He and others who spoke with FoxNews.com say that there are several reasons for the quality lapse, the biggest perhaps, was that it was not given sufficient time to be tested, particularly with all of the major functions it’s expected to perform. “I'm not a Washington insider, but we’ve been hearing all summer that this thing was having issues. There just wasn’t time to test it or fix it.”

Aside from all the “dumb” errors that Turner and others have recognized (at one point, commenters at Reddit.com were pointing out spelling errors in the Javascript), Edwards said that the government had faced monumental challenges from the outset, including the fact that Healthcare.gov had a hard deadline with a rollout “event,” forcing it to skip “beta” test mode. Because ObamaCare involves multiple government agencies and private insurers, the website had to be able to accommodate all of their myriad “legacy” computer networks. In short, all these different networks have to be capable of talking to each other, and efficiently.

So far, according to the White House and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is overseeing Healthcare.gov, the major culprit has been volume and capacity.

“An extraordinary number of people are coming to check out HealthCare.gov. Traffic on the web site and at the call center continues to be high, suggesting a strong interest by consumers in learning about their health coverage options,” HHS said in a statement to FoxNews.com.

“To improve access to the system, work at night has significantly cut down on time people wait before accessing the website.” Officials have stated that the site had some 8.6 million unique visitors over the first three days, with as many as 250,000 on at the same time.

Edwards and Turner said that, aside from being able to see the code on the front end, it is difficult to know exactly what is going on with the site.

“Because of the time constraints, they’re crowd-sourcing their quality assurance to the American public,” Turner said. “We’re being used to find the bugs.”

The company contracted in 2011 for $93 million to build the website, CGI Group Inc., has so far declined comment.

“In my opinion, intermittent, but not fatal, problems will persist for some time – perhaps even until December 15,” Edwards said.