CBS wonders: Did anyone bother to test the ObamaCare software first?

posted at 10:01 am on October 9, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

This CBS report is notable not just for the questions it asks, but the manner in which it recaps the disastrous rollout of the biggest big-government project in 50 years.  It’s not every day that one sees a major media outlet use a unicorn analogy when reporting on a key Obama administration effort, after all:

No one knows how many people have managed to enroll because the administration refuses to release those numbers, but the website’s launch has been rocky.

Media outlets have struggled to find anyone who’s actually been successful. The Washington Post even illustrated that sought-after person as a unicorn, and USA Today called the launch an “inexcusable mess” and a “nightmare.”

We’ll get back to the USA Today editorial in a moment. Meanwhile, CBS asks — and then answers — the question that Congress will want to ask when the inevitable hearings begin.  The White House and HHS had a three-and-a-half-year head start on the insurance exchange rollout.  Did anyone in that time bother to test it?  CBS’ expert says no, and also kicks out the strut underneath the White House claim that it’s massive traffic that’s caused the problems:

“It wasn’t designed well, it wasn’t implemented well, and it looks like nobody tested it,” said Luke Chung, an online database programmer.

Chung supports the new health care law but said it was not the demand that is crashing the site. He thinks the entire website needs a complete overhaul.

“It’s not even close. It’s not even ready for beta testing for my book. I would be ashamed and embarrassed if my organization delivered something like that,” he said.

I’ve worked on massive database projects in the private sector, and I suspect that Chung is correct.  We do know that some testing took place, which is why everyone involved in the project was sending up warning flares for months about its status. HHS and the White House might have rolled it out with full knowledge of its incompetence hoping that they could provide enough assistance to jolly people along, but I don’t think that was the case. The failure caught them flat-footed last Tuesday, and the failure of the weekend retooling effort seemed to do the same. It looks as though no one bothered to actually sit down and try to go from A to Z in the system themselves.

By the way, in one such project in my experience, the company got rid of the program managers when the team didn’t deliver … after eight months. There isn’t a private-sector firm in the world that would have tolerated a web-portal project taking 42 months and delivering this kind of train wreck.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to the editors at USA Today for their take on the situation:

Alas, the administration managed to turn the experience for most of those visitors into a nightmare. Websites crashed, refused to load, or offered bizarre and incomprehensible choices. Even though the system was shut down for repairs over the weekend, Monday’s early reports continued to suggest an epic screw-up. …

Park said the administration expected 50,000 to 60,000 simultaneous users. It got 250,000. Compare that with the similarly rocky debut seven years ago of exchanges to obtain Medicare drug coverage. The Bush administration projected 20,000 simultaneous users and built capacity for 150,000.

That’s the difference between competence and incompetence.

The too-much-demand excuse also is less than the full story. In addition to grossly underestimating demand, the administration and its contractors seem to have made mistakes in building the websites. The system for verifying consumer identity has had persistent problems, as have pull-down menus.

Nor were problems confined to the 36 state health exchanges run by the federal government. Sites run by 14 states and Washington, D.C., bogged down because they have to refer to federal databases to verify consumers’ identity.

Remember, too, that USA Today’s editors support ObamaCare, as the editorial makes clear.  But this isn’t even the worst of the collapses in the ACA, as former Bush-era economic adviser Charles Blahous informs readers at Real Clear Markets today.  Its financial underpinnings have already begun to crumble:

Another of the ACA’s important financing sources-supposedly delivering $140 billion in revenues over 10 years-was the requirement that employers offer affordable coverage to workers or pay a penalty. But earlier this year the Obama Administration announced it would not enforce this requirement during its statutory implementation year of 2014.

Labor leaders’ recent appeal to expand ACA health exchange subsidies to multi-employer plans is but one example of a cost-escalating dynamic that many of us predicted. As I observed last year, “The ACA creates a horizontal inequity between two hypothetical low-income individuals; one who purchases insurance via an exchange receives a substantial direct federal subsidy, whereas one who receives employer-provided insurance (ESI) does not. This differential treatment could well lead either to the second individual’s moving into the health exchanges (thus increasing participation rates) or to the federal government expanding low-income subsidies to those with ESI (increasing costs).” …

Finally, there are the ACA’s most dubious financing sources. These include a new 3.8 percent “unearned income Medicare contribution” (UIMC) and a new tax on “Cadillac” health insurance plans. The income thresholds for the UIMC are not indexed for inflation, so under law most workers would eventually be subject to the tax-over 80 percent of workers within 75 years, according to the Medicare trustees. Past experience with legislation overriding other non-indexed taxes like the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) demonstrate why projections of escalating UIMC revenues should be taken with a hefty grain of salt. So, too, with the so-called “Cadillac plan tax,” designed to hit more and more health insurance plans over time, an outcome that organized labor is determined to prevent.

The problematic nature of the ACA’s finances is such that CBO’s latest “long-term budget outlook” singled out its implementation as one of the biggest sources of future fiscal strains. Through 2038, CBO attributes 35 percent of the cost growth in federal health programs to population aging, 40 percent to general health inflation, and another 26 percent to the implementation of this single law. CBO now projects that merely delaying ACA implementation for one year would save $36 billion.

Maybe we just need more unicorns …

Update: Our good friend Jeryl Bier warned everyone about the problem on September 12th.

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Whoa, just heard on Rush… CNN is reporting that Obama knew the websites wouldn’t work ahead of time. Wolf Blitzer “if they had 3 years to get this ready, they should accept the advice of Republicans to delay…”.

oryguncon on October 9, 2013 at 2:29 PM

one who purchases insurance via an exchange receives a substantial direct federal subsidy

Do us all a favor. Stop saying things like “federal subsidy” and start saying things like “taxpayer-paid subsidy”.

Words matter. Accuracy matters.

dissent555 on October 9, 2013 at 3:03 PM

If we had these people in charge of WWII we’d all be speaking German or Japanese. As it is we’ll end up speaking Chinese, Arabic and Spanish.

claudius on October 9, 2013 at 3:04 PM

No pay for poor work!

claudius on October 9, 2013 at 3:11 PM

There’s usually a management problem that causes an EpicClusterFarkNado(tm) such as this.

dogsoldier on October 9, 2013 at 10:23 AM

I bow before your superior word coinage.

Abelard on October 9, 2013 at 3:14 PM

To use a metaphor, until the plane crashes and people die the problem(s) that brought it down won’t be identified and fixed. The broken aircraft and dead bodies make it indisputable that something went wrong.

The PPACA bumped along, despite the critics and observers who worried, because the proponents could point out that it had not yet crashed. The problems would be worked out, trust us. The consequences of actually acknowledging the problems or taking steps to solve them were deemed to negative to be acknowledged.

Now that the launch has demonstrated serious problems, proponents try to assure all the passengers that it is only a minor problem and can be fixed. Until it collapses, if it does, everyone would be assured that “it’s only some glitches”.

We’ll have to see what happens.

Russ808 on October 9, 2013 at 4:06 PM

Abelard on October 9, 2013 at 3:14 PM

Thank you!

dogsoldier on October 9, 2013 at 7:00 PM

Of course they knew. The whole purpose of Obamacare is to fail epically so as to blame the private sector and whip the populace into backing the government single-payer program. Nothing is sadder than leftists who feign surprise that this disaster is already showing signs of imploding.

TQM38a on October 9, 2013 at 7:16 PM

What makes you think they wrote unit tests at all? I wouldn’t be surprised if they developed on the production servers and had a chaotic commit policy. And the people raising the warnings were either the developers themselves or some other at least semi-sane manager who had access to it.

Fenris on October 9, 2013 at 11:40 AM

I don’t believe they wrote unit tests at all. Its the first thing to get chopped in a rushed project.

And you’re right about them developing on production servers. What probably happened (like it has happened before on many, many projects), is that the development servers BECOME the production servers as the code is rushed to production. It’s a whole lot easier to promote the system as production than clone a scaled-up environment.

Also, most devs I work with have the integrity to warn managers if the codebase is inherently unstable. But usually any warnings get overruled from pressure from the top… as if management pressure will suddenly cause broken code to start working by itself.

dominigan on October 9, 2013 at 7:53 PM

There is a lot of nepotism in gov projects. Spouses, partners, kids and old friends. Since there is no competition, board, margin or creative destruction there is nothing to stop the nepotism.

I’m sure that tons of “programmers” are on the job who never wrote code for a living. And a lot of them still haven’t written any code. I feel feel sorry for the 3 guys who are probably doing all the work.

BoxHead1 on October 10, 2013 at 12:04 AM

GAlpha10 on October 9, 2013 at 1:57 PM

actually I think it was more the states than the companies, each state had it’s own requirements for health insurance. the other thing is do you really want health insurance to cross state line, I don’t think you really do, if ACA does get repealed, the feds could use the commerce clause to stick their noes into health care again.

RonK on October 10, 2013 at 7:50 AM

It’s been hacked and diagnosed. The problem is, in as few words a possible:

– the code is sloppy, repetitive, and buggy
– any user response generates anywhere from several, to several hundred, inquiries back to the servers
– the resulting effect of massive requests mimics a self-induced DDOS
– the buggy sloppy software crashes under the self-generated DDOS attack.

Your government at work.

MarkT on October 10, 2013 at 11:04 AM