TPM Cafe: Opinion

A Programmer's Perspective On Healthcare.gov And ACA Marketplaces

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It is natural for technologists to go into crisis mode and immediately start triaging problems and brainstorming solutions. They are smart and want to help and believe they can fix things. This is a totally appropriate attitude, and their nervous feelings are valid. The people implementing the marketplace sites have all the problems of developing large-scale, integrated, enterprise software, plus delivering a high-quality consumer experience. I think we should also have some perspective on what's happening, and I would caution against panic. There are a number of things to bear in mind:

Architecture. Caveat: I don't have direct experience with the marketplace sites, only second-hand knowledge about how they're implemented. That said, I know some details. The main thing to understand is there is no one, single Obamacare site--there is healthcare.gov, which is home to the federal marketplace and a portal to the state-based marketplaces, and there are the 20+ state-based sites. The federal marketplace is for all Americans for whom their states either chose not to implement their own marketplace or their site isn't ready yet.

The user interface, or frontend, of healthcare.gov is quite interesting. It's design has been compared favorably with top commercial sites. It was implemented using modern web development techniques, working well across browsers and on mobile devices. We used similar techniques on the president's campaign: generate static files from templates with Jekyll, serve them from behind a CDN (Akamai, in the case of healthcare.gov). This gives you a very fast, low-latency user experience that's very durable in the face of high-traffic loads. Dave Cole has written about the process by which the frontend was developed, it's fascinating to read if you have any experience with how government sites have typically been built. And you'll notice, no one has complained about being able to access the site itself. healthcare.gov itself has been up continuously since October 1st. It's submitting forms back to the server that's been the issue.

About the backend server: having a great frontend experience means little if you can't complete a transaction with the service. (Although, not nothing--many important informational consumer resources reside on the frontend and have been wholly unaffected by the reported outages.) People may not realize that a major part of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was the streamlining the rules surrounding Medicaid eligibility. healthcare.gov serves then as a portal, routing people to the appropriate resource they need to help them get covered. This means not only sending you to your state-based marketplace site if your state has one, but directing you to Medicaid instead of the marketplaces, if you are eligible, or determining that you meet requirements for a subsidy on the marketplace. In order to do these things, the system verifies your identity, income, and other personal data with new and existing government databases. In other words, so that it may route you to the correct entity that will be offering or providing you health insurance, healthcare.gov looks up your information online (i.e., during the course of a request-response cycle with the site). The architecture of healthcare.gov is an example of both the challenges of integration--different software services working together--and distributed systems--independent systems that may or may not be available or meeting certain service-level agreements or standards.

An alternative to an online lookup of personal data or account creation would be to store the request for later processing. This is commonly referred to as queuing. It turns an online process into an offline one: the system goes from being synchronous--waiting for a response from another system after making a request to it--to asychronous--not waiting for the response and arranging to check the result somehow later. This is not a trivial change, as people who have implemented these systems will know. It requires a fairly fundamental redesign of the flow of the software, the application of business rules, and how certain operational details are carried out. However, it is now widely established pattern for system development. For example, when you buy a ticket from an airline reservation site, and wait for your credit card to be processed and the whole transaction to complete, that is an example of a synchronous, or online, system (internally, the system may very well be composed of asynchronous services, but the frontend interface that the used interacts with presents a synchronous experience). When you place an order with Amazon, on the other hand, you receive a response almost immediately ("thank you for your order!"). If there is a problem with your order--your card is expired, or was declined--you later receive a notification, usually an email, asking you to update your payment info. That is an example of an asynchronous system. Why does this matter? Asynchrous, distributed systems have components that are de-coupled--if one fails, it doesn't necessarily bring the rest down with that. You have to design your system to be resilient for such failures, but it enables you to do things such as quickly store the contents of a form submission and acknowledge the user with a thank-you message when the system that looks up personal data or creates new accounts is down. This introduces operational complexity: you must have a functioning queue system, you must have programs that process the queue, they need to be monitored and errors have to be handled appropriately (since there is no online user that can respond to them), and notification systems like email that are out-of-band of the website may need to be employed (in case you need to ask the user to come back and provide more information).

I don't know to what extent healthcare.gov was designed with the challenges of distributed systems in mind, but moving toward more asynchronous data flows where possible will alleviate some of the poor user experiences we've seen reported. It will also free them up to still take in a high volume of requests while independently working to fix bugs in the transactional or informational data services.

Errors, user experience, and expectations. In the reports about problems users have experienced with healthcare.gov and the state-based marketplace sites, we've seen screenshots and descriptions of ugly error messages. The quality of the healthcare.gov frontend, with its attractive design that's more like a retail site than a government site, I think has primed users for an overall experience reflective of that design. They expect the under-the-hood to be as good as the hood appears. Ugly error messages, and disappointment at not being able to complete the sign-up process, frustrate expectations that were set by the site itself, and by its champions, myself included, who encouraged people to go to the site on day 1.

The ugly error messages have for the most part been replaced with friendlier views, and we know that the backend engineers are working to fix the sign-up process. A way to handle expectations at this point for site users might be to remind them, at the point of a system error or maintenance page, that they have until December 15th to enroll for coverage beginning January 1st, 2014, and until March 31st to enroll for coverage in 2014. Another mechanism to reassure a frustrated user that couldn't sign up might be a simple form that collect email addresses to be notified when the system is back online.

Unprecedented environmental hostility and limited time. Ever since PPACA was passed, I've heard griping about would it take so long for Obamacare to come online. In reality, given the scope of the changes to the regulatory framework for health insurance markets, changes to Medicaid eligibility, and the implementation of the federal and state-based marketplaces, there was a huge amount of work to deliver a major new social insurance program in such a short amount of time. It's natural that there would be bugs, and the president, HHS, and CMS teams have said as much. Going back, many regulatory and technical fixes to the law have been prevented from being taken up by Congress by the law's opponents. And now of course the federal government is shutdown due in part to opposition to the law. While little of this hostility is new information to implementers, it is nonetheless remarkable what they were able to achieve in this environment. A suspected denial-of-service attack on New York's site only compounds the outside forces set against this fledgling program.

State-based marketplaces. It is a joke among Medicaid staff that you've seen one state's Medicaid system, you've seen one state's Medicaid system. 24 states chose to implement their own marketplace. While their sites will share some common services with the federal marketplace, and some large contractors worked on multiple sites, these are independently developed and administered sites with their own architectures, infrastructure, designs, and staff.

Time. My strong belief is that these early problems will be largely forgotten very soon. People will get covered. People are getting enrolled, now, despite the problems. It's worth remembering what happened during the implementation of Medicare Part D. There were many of the same types of reports, from pharmacies that couldn't connect to government data services, to seniors that were temporarily unable to receive their benefit. Do we think about those stories now when we think about Part D? Of course not. Part D is just as strong and beloved piece of the social safety net firmament as any other. So it will be with Obamacare.

None of this is to excuse the problems healthcare.gov has had this week. October 1st was a known deadline, major sites have been launched under hostile or constrained circumstances before. But I think if we understand a bit more everything involved, we might not be so quick to condemn or dismiss out of hand.

Smith is a software engineer and lifelong computer programmer living in Baltimore, MD. He's the CTO and co-founder of Public Good Software, a startup to make better software for civil society. He was the former Deputy Director of Technology at the Democratic National Committee and co-founded EveryBlock in 2007. This post was originally published on his Tumblr.

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