Oct. 09--Technical flaws paralyzing the federal website where consumers shop for health insurance may be caused by coding errors, inefficient design and interactions with older, slower government databases, a local technology expert says.
The Obama administration probably can ease consumers' frustrations and speed up the functions of healthcare.gov by deleting some features on the website, said John Engates, chief technology officer of San Antonio-based Rackspace Hosting Inc.
"My first inclination, if I was doing this, is I'd go back to the software engineers and I'd say, 'What can we cut out that would speed things up?'" Engates said Tuesday as the federal marketplace continued to stymie shoppers nationwide a week after its debut.
"I think the easy thing for them to do is to change what they're doing on the website to make that process more lightweight and streamlined."
Rackspace, a web-hosting and cloud-computing company, hasn't been involved in any aspect of the federal website's design or maintenance, and has not provided consulting advice to the government on the issue.
For months, the Obama administration touted the website as a consumer-friendly portal where Americans could shop online for affordable health insurance and apply for tax credits to immediately reduce their costs.
Since open enrollment began Oct. 1, however, few have been able to see health plans, compare rates or get subsidies because technical glitches have impeded access to the website. The federal government has refused to say how many people have successfully enrolled.
With a March 31 enrollment deadline in place, the pressure is on to get the glitches corrected. The Affordable Care Act requires uninsured consumers to obtain health insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty tax.
Work to improve the federal website has begun to show results, reducing wait times and allowing more people to enroll, said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"But," she said, "we won't stop until the doors to healthcare.gov are wide open."
Part of the problem may be that the electronic database verifying information such as Social Security numbers and income is accessing other government agencies' databases that are older and less sophisticated, Engates said. If the backup systems are slow, he said, it doesn't matter how well the front end has been designed or coded.
"I think that even if they coded it perfectly -- which, certainly nobody ever codes anything perfectly -- if the systems behind the scenes were not up to that task, then you've got a real problem," Engates said. "There's a lot of moving parts in this system that are outside the control of the people that are answering questions and saying, 'We're going to get better.'"
Many people have been unable to create online accounts -- the basic first step to enrollment -- because they can't see the security questions they must select and answer to complete registration. Often, no security questions appear in the drop-down menu onscreen.
"That probably is coding error," Engates said. "That's pretty much a basic function of almost every web system I've ever seen. That should not be difficult for them to accomplish.
"So if that's breaking down, I would imagine they've got some problems with their code and their software -- or the databases that support that are just not returning the results in a timely manner. That could be capacity issues. But it's hard to tell for sure from the outside."
Website efficiency improvements typically can be made within a couple of weeks, Engates said. Conversely, massive upgrades of other government agencies' older databases that perhaps might be slowing the process could take months, he said.
A big frustration for many consumers wanting to weigh their options is that the website's current format prevents so-called "window shopping." Consumers can't compare health plans and prices until they have created an account, completed an application and received an eligibility notice from the federal government.
The government omitted the window-shopping function because officials first wanted consumers to know the amount of the subsidy they might be eligible for, Peters said.
Allowing consumers to browse anonymously was one of the recommendations of Enroll UX 2014, a project aimed at designing an optimal user experience for the insurance marketplaces.
Engates also expressed concern that the federal website's practice of sending an email to users with a link to verify their own email address once they have registered could give rise to phishing scams.
Anger appeared to be mounting on the marketplace's Twitter page Tuesday, with some consumers imploring the government to publish health plan prices in an easily accessible venue.
"It's been a week now. How much longer? Please give alternate location to view plans and rates," a Chicago woman posted on the market's Twitter page.
"Just publish the damn rates!" another user wrote.
The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.