HealthCare.gov was so broken it was almost scrapped after launch, according to a new expose in Time.
In the March 10 cover story, “Code Red,” Steven Brill offers a detailed account of what happened behind the scenes during the disastrous launch and the subsequent effort to fix the site.
He says the post-launch panic was so deep that President Obama actually considered scrapping the site altogether and starting fresh.
How did the President get to that point?
On October 17, more than two weeks after the federal exchange had officially launched, it still wasn’t working. Only 30 per cent of people who tried to access the site succeeded, and even those who connected were generally unable to actually sign up for a plan.
Obama was not about to watch his signature legislation fail before it had even gotten off the ground, and he was ready to employ any means necessary to change course. Brill writes:
Unknown to a nation following the fiasco, [Denis] McDonough’s assignment from the President had boiled down to something more dire than how to fix the site. As the chief of staff remembers his mission, it was “Can it be patched and improved to work, or does it need to be scrapped to start over? He wanted to know if this thing is salvageable.”
Brill’s article suggests that in the lead-up to October 1, the administration’s focus on big-picture messaging and outreach had doomed the site from the start.
“No one in the White House meetings leading up to the launch had any idea whether the technology worked,” Brill writes. One of the people brought in to fix the site told Brill that “to this day he cannot figure out who was supposed to have been in charge of the HealthCare.gov launch.” Another said “it was pretty obvious from the first look that the system hadn’t been designed to work right.”
The team seriously considered pulling the plug on HealthCare.gov and working toward a completely new release nine months down the line.
But the crack team the administration brought in to fix the site concluded that “nothing… was beyond repair,” and the engineers who had flubbed the project to begin with were “eager to cooperate” in making it work.
When the team released its first major fix on October 22 — changing the site to cache the most-accessed data to avoid a database bottleneck — pages started loading in two seconds instead of eight.
While that was not good enough, it was a significant improvement that convinced the team that the site should be saved — not scrapped.
Somewhat miraculously, a little over a month later, Brill writes, “HealthCare.gov not only had not been scrapped, it was working well and on its way to working even better.”
Mikey Dickerson, a site-reliability engineer at Google who led the fix-it team, told Brill he was “never worried.”
“It’s just a website,” Dickerson said. “We’re not going to the moon.”
Read the whole article on Time.com (subscription required), or buy it on newsstands.
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