Skip to main content

Why healthcare.gov has so many problems

By Steven Bellovin, Special to CNN
October 15, 2013 -- Updated 1040 GMT (1840 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The new insurance exchange site, HealthCare.gov, has technical problems
  • Steven Bellovin: Large-scale software projects are hard; glitches are common
  • He says testing for errors and changing requirements contribute to delays or failures
  • Bellovin: Good project management is a remarkably large part of the effort

Editor's note: Steven Bellovin is a professor of computer science at Columbia University.

(CNN) -- No one should be surprised by the technical problems that have plagued the new health insurance exchange website, HealthCare.gov, which allows millions of Americans to sign up and buy health coverage.

Angry, OK. Disappointed, of course. But surprised? Don't be.

Large-scale software projects are hard. Failures or delays in schedule, budget and functionality are so common as to almost be the norm, not the exception.

Steven Bellovin
Steven Bellovin

Sure, the website rollout could have been handled a lot better. With all the delays and warning signs, the government could have stopped touting HealthCare.gov and teasing the public with messages such as "5 days to open enrollment. Don't wait another minute."

But the federal government has never had a fantastic track record in dealing with technology projects. This was not just an Obamacare problem. Most of the government has little experience in managing such a big, complex project, and management is a remarkably large part of the effort; building a system like this takes far more than just programming.

Maybe it should have hired a general contractor to supervise the 55 contractors who worked on the website. Maybe it should have looked into launching at a later date instead of October 1. But the bottom line is that technical glitches are an inescapable part of our digital life.

Glitches continue with Obamacare site
Keeping Them Honest: Obamacare debacle

We see this in the private sector. When United Airlines and Continental Airlines merged, the combined reservation system didn't work very well at first. The new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport outside London was saddled with software problems. Nor are tech giants immune; Windows Vista was very late because Microsoft had myriad troubles during development.

The inherent nature of software is that it demands perfection. Computers do exactly what they're told to do. Even small errors can be disastrous. For example, one of the first American space probes to Venus was lost in part because of a single missing hyphen character in a program.

Testing is the next hurdle. Any project needs adequate time to make sure the software works properly and to find and correct any flaws. Time, however, was in short supply with the launch of the online insurance marketplace. If development took too long, there wouldn't be enough time to test it thoroughly. That apparently was one of the problems. And even when all of the pieces are working fine, the entire system has to be tested; that can't be done until quite late in the process.

Project management also plays a big role. It's very hard to estimate how long a project will take. That means it's hard to know how many programmers to devote to the task, how much it will cost and so on. Measuring progress isn't easy, either, which means it's hard to tell how far along you are.

The worst problem is probably that requirements change while the software is being developed. This may mean that you have to redo work you've already done, but the effects can be more far-reaching. It's like building a house: If the owners suddenly decide they want a big floor-to-ceiling picture window on the second floor, it may require rerouting water pipes. That may require moving the ground-floor bathroom, which in turn could affect the kitchen layout, because the bathtub and the kitchen sink share drain pipes. Part of project management's job is to say "no" to many change requests, but that's not always possible.

What if more computers are added? That's not always a solution. If the computers have to share access to resources -- say, a database of people who have signed up -- it gets complicated. Suppose you've invited many people over for dinner, more than you've ever hosted before. You and your spouse decide to share the preparation and cooking. Maybe you have sufficient counter space, but you still have only one sink, one stove and one oven. With two people, it might be relatively straightforward to take turns, but with three or four or more cooks, it can get crazy.

Finally, there's the "system integration" problem of combining the different components. A system like the insurance exchanges is built in parts. Eventually, like a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces have to be put together. Do the slots and tongues line up properly? Are the right parts of the picture on the right pieces? Did all of the contractors use the same shade of green for the grass?

There are standard approaches, standard tools and standard software for building large-scale websites. Using them correctly takes good planning and management. That was in short supply here.

The contractors building HealthCare.gov couldn't control the budget or the timing for the regulations; those were the product of Washington politics. While there are apparent programming and design errors, it's quite likely that most are the result of requirement changes rather than incompetence.

The overall failure appears to have been one of project management on the part of the government. In the best of all possible worlds, the site would have launched seamlessly to serve the entire nation. But software is hard. Inexperience doesn't help. And politics just makes things messier.

The Obama administration is "excruciatingly" embarrassed and is working hard to get the glitches fixed. Let's hope things go more smoothly the next time around.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven Bellovin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT