Healthcare.Gov can't be fixed

Problems with the Healthcare.gov website being characterized in the media as mere “glitches” are far more serious than the administration wants the American people to know. 

I spent nearly 30 years as a senior IT executive, in both the federal government and private sector. Many of the implementations I managed supported critical national security requirements, while others held the success of multi-billion dollar, publicly traded companies in the balance.

The administration can't –- or won’t -- tell us how many have successfully enrolled in Obamacare through the website.  But, based on reports from the states, the number of people who have navigated the enrollment process to the end are as rare as state lottery winners. What’s worse, the Administration professes to be baffled as to why the $400 million website remains broken, and can't say with certainty when the problems will be resolved.  This may be the most stunning example of overpromising and under delivering in recent U.S history.

Based on my review, the problems with the Healthcare.gov website are catastrophic. They stem from a haphazard, undisciplined design and implementation process that was doomed from the start.  Here's why.

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There are multiple, critical points in a complex system implementation like Healthcare.gov.  Failures at any critical point are very serious.  If a failure occurs early enough in the process, everything done after that failure is likely to fail as well - because subsequent tasks, equations, and software code proceed from that flawed process.  Here's a simple, everyday parallel that may help clarify this complicated technological problem.

You see, you can't re-cook eggs!  When you order eggs sunny-side-up and the waitress brings you scrambled eggs, fairly well burnt, you have only two choices.  You can either accept the food the way it came, or you can send it back and ask the cook to start over with fresh ingredients.  Hiring more cooks or paying them more can't turn those scrambled eggs into sunny-side-up eggs, neither will ignoring your questions about why the people you counted on to get it right, got it wrong. Someone, usually you - the customer, is the loser, because the cooking process went terribly wrong.

But, there’s much more at stake than two overcooked eggs due to the failure of the Healthcare.gov rollout. The credibility of this already-unpopular program has been deeply shaken; and unfortunately the taxpayers are the ones who’ve lost the most.

Successfully implementing a complex system requires much discipline, experience, and a proven methodology. If, for example, requirements are not clear or are misinterpreted, or designers fail to exercise the discipline required to ensure the right components are included and properly tested, or if the system is not sized adequately, or if the data is not complete, in the right format, or secure, then the system fails. As a member of Congress tasked with the oversight of how the administration spends tax dollars, I’m concerned that several of these problems were present in the Obamacare website rollout.

Consequently, like customers who don’t get what they order for breakfast, either the American people must accept that the system won’t work as designed, or someone must pay potentially hundreds of millions of dollars more for the system to be redesigned, redeveloped, and re-implemented. 

What should the president do? The same thing you’d expect from the restaurant owner responsible for your ruined breakfast - make it right.  How?  After acknowledging that the implementation has been a complete failure (that’s what responsible leaders do), and that his administration wasted over $400 million of the taxpayers’ money, he should identify spending cuts to offset the millions of dollars that will be required to replace this flawed system. The President should then hold accountable and remove those key decision makers who mislead him and the American people.  Finally, he should delay the compliance and enrollment deadlines for the hardworking American people until he certifies that the system is fully implemented, tested, and validated - delay the individual mandate like the delay he has already given to big business.

Johnson has represented Ohio's 6th Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He spent 26 years in the Air Force, and has extensive experience designing, developing, implementing, and maintaining complex, often global, computer information systems and networks.