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Tag: Healthcare.gov

Is Healthcare.gov the Future? I Ask a Futurist

Ian Morrison is a health care futurist. Companies, trade groups and nonprofits call on him to speak about trends in health care and offer prognostications of what the future brings. I’ve heard him speak a few times and his knowledge and sense of humor drew me in right away.

Last Friday, I tweeted a story written by Anna Gorman and Julie Appleby,friends at Kaiser Health News about hundreds of thousands of consumers receiving cancellation notices from their insurance companies on account of the Affordable Care Act. I was surprised to learn that Morrison was one of them.

I emailed him to find out more. This is what he told me: Until 2011, Morrison paid for his health coverage from a company on whose board of directors he served. The company was sold and he was insured through COBRA until this March. As he tells it, Blue Shield of California “didn’t want a badly behaved 60 year old Scotsman,” so he got coverage through a preferred-provider organization offered by the insurance company Health Net through a Farm Bureau program.

“No kidding,” he says, he’s no farmer.

Two weeks ago, he received a letter canceling that plan for reasons similar to those cited in the Kaiser story. He subsequently applied for coverage—not through Covered California, the state’s new health insurance marketplace, but directly through Blue Shield. Because of the Affordable Care Act’s ban on discriminating based on pre-existing conditions, the insurer must take him.

Here’s a Q&A I had with Morrison by email (edited for clarity with his approval).

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Why Calling it a “Tech Surge” May Not Be the Best Idea in History

Now that our federal government is back at work and the short term debt ceiling thing is resolved, it should be no surprise that the news cycle is now obsessed with Obamacare and its flawed implementation. Over the weekend I must have seen a dozen articles about this online and in the NY Times, and then I woke up this morning to a bunch of new things about the Healthcare.gov site underlying tech, how screwed up it is, and what / how the Health and Human Services agency is going to do to fix it.

The punch line – a tech surge.

To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering.

Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.  We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them.  We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.

From my perspective, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Many years ago I read Fredrick Brooks iconic book on software engineering – The Mythical Man-Month. One of his key messages is that adding additional software engineers to an already late project will just delay things more. I like to take a different approach – if a project is late, take people off the project, shrink the scope, and ship it faster.

I think rather than a tech surge, we should have a “tech retreat and reset.” There are four easy steps.

  • 1. Shut down everything including taking all the existing sites offline.
  • 2. Set a new launch date of July 14, 2014.
  • 3. Fire all of the contractors.
  • 4. Hire Harper Reed as CTO of Healthcare.gov, give him the ball and 100% of the budget, and let him run with it.

If Harper isn’t available, ask him for three names of people he’d put in charge of this. But put one person – a CTO – in charge. And let them hire a team – using all the budget for individual hires, not government contractors or consulting firms.

Hopefully the government owns all the software even though Healthcare.gov apparently violates open source licenses. Given that, the new CTO and his team can quickly triage what is useful and what isn’t. By taking the whole thing offline for nine months, you aren’t in the hell of trying to fix something while it’s completely broken. It’s still a fire drill, but you are no longer inside the building that is burning to the ground.

It’s 2013. We know a lot more about building complex software than we did in 1980. So we should stop using approaches from the 1980s, admit failure when it happens, and hit reset. Doing a “tech surge” will only end in more tears.

Brad Feld is the managing director at the Foundry Group. This post originally appeared at his site, FeldThoughts.

Healthcare.com Would Have Worked Better

Is this any way to build a railroad?

By now you’ve heard that the “Obamacare exchanges” did not launch on October 1 so much as stumble out into public view, barely able to crawl.

Three weeks later, the federal version — “healthcare.gov,” which is actually the same exchange re-deployed 36 times in 36 states — is still barely able to crawl. By contrast, most of the 15 exchanges operated by individual states and the District of Columbia are working more or less fine, for varying reasons we will explore in a moment.

Why the epic fail for healthcare.gov, estimated to have generated a health insurance enrollment rate of less than one-half of one percent among nearly 10 million visitors? Information technologists have identified lunk-headed flaws in its overall design, while pointing to the way the Federal government rolled it out, all at once, all across the nation — as if it were a campaign commercial and not one of the most complex undertakings in the history of e-commerce.

Which would be for good reason: the federal exchange is a campaign commercial, one the Administration had no choice but to broadcast after its opponents went to war on every front against implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The architects of the ACA expected that states would build their own exchanges. The federal exchange was supposed to be a failsafe — a fallback for a few straggler states unable to build their own in time for the October 1 launch. For the rest, healthcare.gov was supposed to do two things: point people to their state’s exchange; and handle the very complicated task of querying tax and other federal databases to verify people’s eligibility.

Instead, it found itself saddled with the entire e-commerce job for 36 refusenik states.

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Should the Obamacare Exchanges Be Shut Down?

My sense is that the biggest reason Obamacare is now in trouble is because of the top-secret way in which the administration has handled the rollout. If they had developed the computer system in a transparent way, the marketplace would have told them long ago this would not work.

No one outside the inner circle at the Department of Health and Human Services has any idea what’s really going on behind the Wizard’s curtain. Hasn’t for months. Doesn’t now.

So any technical advice any of us could give would be, to say the least, uninformed.

If I were on the inside, and it were up to me, the first thing I would do is bring in a group of heavyweight information technology experts to tell me just what was really going on. The administration cannot trust the people who have been working on this because they told them to launch this mess on October 1 and almost three weeks in there has been no improvement on the website or in the backroom––they no longer have credibility.

I would ask those experts to very quickly answer three questions:

  1. Can this thing be fixed on the fly––as the administration appears to be trying to do?
  2. If it can’t be fixed on the fly––and three weeks into this that sure looks doubtful––then can it be taken down for one or two months with a high degree of confidence it can be brought back up in time to enroll people sooner rather than later?
  3. If the first two options are not possible, just how long will the computer system have to be shutdown before Obamacare can be launched in a way that there can be confidence it will work smoothly?

Then I would take their advice.

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A Pragmatic Fix for Healthcare.gov & the HIXs

By now even those of us who originally thought that we were seeing minor teething troubles are no longer deluding ourselves. Healthcare.gov, the federal health insurance exchanges (HIXs), and many of the state HIXs are in deep trouble.

One summary of many articles about this is up at ProPublica. But now that the House Republicans have stopped trying to destroy the country and themselves, attention will turn quickly to this problem, and–much worse–beyond the politics, there is now only eight or so weeks to get ready for actual enrollments for Jan 1, once you take out Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday. Getting ten or twenty million new customers on board, not to mention the small businesses who want to move from their current insurance onto the exchanges, seems like an impossible task.

But, if we can muster the will, there may be a solution. (And yes, I want it to work, faut de mieux). Quietly last summer two private online insurance brokers, eHealth which runs the eHealthInsurance.com site, and GetInsured, struck deals with HHS which allowed them to enroll individuals in plans that qualify for the mandate under the ACA, and more importantly, connect with the “Health Exchange Data Hub” that figures out whether the enrollee qualifies for a subsidy (theoretically by connecting to the IRS).

That part of the transaction, though, could be done by attestation and dealt with later. In other words, someone buying health insurance could state what their income will be in 2014 (or was in 2013) and if it ends up varying dramatically on their 1040 then in 2015 they will pay or receive the difference. Essentially this is something all Americans recognize–the IRS asks you for more or gives you a tax refund well after the fact, and H&R Block and their competitors make a business of giving you the refund right away (and of course charge you for the privilege).

That is important because what seems to be crippling the HIXs right now is not the back end, it’s the front end. (Go to this Reddit thread for lots more deeply technical conversation about that). Showing people options, comparing plans, setting up accounts–that’s all standard web stuff and most of the HIXs can’t do it. Those private brokers have both smoothly done this for years and at least the two I mentioned have built comparative tools for the new insurance plans. (Both were demoed at Health 2.0 on October 1).

So why can’t we put prominent links to eHealthInsurance.com and GetInsured on the Healthcare.gov site and move people over there? Continue reading…

The Federal Shutdown is Over. The Health Care Fight is Just Getting Started. Here’s What May Happen Next…

Social security numbers allegedly passed around in clear sight. Page after page of unworkable code. And no clarity on when it will all be fixed.

Just another day of trying to log in to healthcare.gov.

Two weeks after its launch, the federal health insurance exchange is a “failure,” says the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein. Some officials deserve to be fired, according to Robert Gibbs, who until February 2011 was one of President Obama’s closest advisers.

And those are the Affordable Care Act’s supporters.

Even the president conceded on Tuesday that healthcare.gov had “way more glitches than I think are acceptable.”

Those glitches could take months — or even years — to fix, according to reports. But there’s a key deadline looming: Jan. 1, 2014, when the ACA’s individual mandate takes effect.

Under the mandate, millions of Americans who were expected to use the exchanges to obtain health insurance will face fines if they haven’t purchased coverage by Feb. 15, raising the question of whether the mandate or other Obamacare provisions should be postponed — an uncomfortable position for an administration already trying to implement a politically divisive law.

But at this late date, what parts of the ACA can legally be delayed?

“In a sense, all of it,” Timothy Jost, a Washington & Lee law professor, told me. But “there’d be a high political price to pay. And delay could result in litigation.”

Jost was among several experts who spoke with me about the health insurance exchanges’ bumpy rollout, the ripple effects for the mandate and other provisions, and what it could all mean for implementing the ACA.

What Agencies Can and Can’t Do
When considering a delay to Obamacare, it’s important to understand the difference between statutory and discretionary deadlines.

For example, the ACA’s language directly calls for many mandatory deadlines — like rolling out the individual mandate or implementing a slew of insurance market reforms on Jan. 1, 2014.

But the agencies also have had considerable leeway on how they’ve chosen to apply the law — like choosing an Oct. 1 launch date for the exchanges, a deadline that retrospectively seems ambitious.

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How Identity Verification Caused Chaos on the State and Federal Exchanges

We may be getting a better idea why the federal exchange and so many state exchanges aren’t working.

An article in Saturday’s Baltimore Sun, regarding Maryland’s problems, provides insight I have not seen elsewhere:

Problems began immediately after the exchange launched Tuesday, as people tried to create accounts and log onto the site.

State officials blamed the account creation process, in which people were routed to a federal questionnaire to verify their identity. The system, they said, became overwhelmed when so many people tried to access it.

So, it appears all of the exchanges are facing the same bottleneck at the federal level–the identity verification software the feds are running for themselves and the state exchanges.

Then the Sun article provided more insight:

Requiring people to create accounts to access the system may be one of the problems, said Jonathan Wu, co-founder of consumer finance website ValuePenguin, who has a computer science background. Some states, including Kentucky [which as been about the only state running well], let people browse insurance plans without an account, which was only needed to purchase insurance. Kentucky did not have as big a backlog, he said.

“It’s kind of an architectural and software issue,” Wu said. “You are not accounting for how people want to use the system.”

With personal accounts, the computer system has to work harder, storing information about everyone who accesses the website, he said. It also has to repeatedly confirm the identity of the person, which also can bog down the system, Wu said. He noted that all the functions on the website that don’t require an account have run smoothly.

“It has to match your account every step you make,” Wu said. “This causes extra overhead.”

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One Man’s Quest to Sign Up for Obamacare

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Day 4:

After spending more than two hours in the waiting room, I once again tried to create an account at healthcare.gov so my family could #GetCovered – as instructed by President Obama and Secretary Sebelius.

My first attempt at setting up an account today was thwarted when healthcare.gov said the user name I attempted to use was no good:

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Ack! It says the username already exists? This was the username I had set up on Day One (backstory here), but the system ultimately didn’t recognize it. I feared some other Tony Jewell had used my cleverly placed underscore.

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Reports Suggest Exchange Numbers Are Very Low

“Well, Facebook Wasn’t Built In a Day.” – Unnamed Exchange Developer.

More than 4.8 million users visited Healthcare.gov for the grand opening of the federal health insurance marketplace on Tuesday, according to officials.

It didn’t go quite as planners had hoped. In fact, if there was an unofficial word of the day, it was glitch.

Many users of Healthcare.gov reported long delays and difficulty accessing the federal insurance marketplace,  experiencing “glitches” ranging from error messages to blank pages.  The problems were repeated at state-run exchanges around the country to varying degree, from California to New York.

Pundits like Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein were quick to point out that the political victory the GOP might have gained from the uncertain start was largely lost in the uproar in Washington over the government shutdown, which dominated news reports.

At least one frustrated user chronicled the experience (see related post ‘Descent into Madness: One Man’s Visit to Healthcare.gov, October 1st ). Others took to Twitter to express their outrage or show off their savage or finely-tuned senses of humor.

Users of the federal exchange reported problems including error messages (see above), funky dropdown menu behavior, page freezes, blips, broken links and long page load times — generally either a sign of high volume or inelegantly designed databases.

HHS officials declined to reveal how many people signed up for new insurance plans overall, leading some theorists to speculate that not very many people were able to make it through the process successfully. In point of fact, there were suspiciously few reports of users successfully completing the registration process at all, probably not a very good sign and possibly an indication of a disaster.Continue reading…

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