Just How Bad Is the Obamacare Website, Anyway?


I’ve been corresponding with a friend about the problems with the federal Obamacare website, and I have to admit that I’m having second thoughts about my initial reaction. Back on October 2, it looked to me like the problems were serious, but nothing all that out of the ordinary for a big software project. My conclusion: “Before long, the sites will all be working pretty well, with only the usual background rumble of small problems. By this time next month, no one will even remember that the first week was kind of rocky or that anyone was initially panicked.”

That might still be the case, and certainly one of the lessons of big software rollouts is that you always reach a point when you’re finally convinced that you really are well and truly doomed—and that’s often the point when things start to get better. Maybe that’s where we are now. But the reporting we’ve seen recently about the nature of the Obamacare problems certainly suggests otherwise. The bugs seem deep and profound. So why has this turned out to be so much worse than I thought it would be?

My guess is that I didn’t take schedule slippage into account. I’ve worked on several projects that seemed disastrous at the time, but part of the disaster was the very fact that everything was late. It simply took much longer to build the product than we thought, so we ended up shipping months after we’d originally planned. Even at that there were still plenty of bugs, but they were mostly tractable. Bad, but tractable.

With Obamacare, however, they weren’t allowed to slip the schedule. They had to ship on October 1. Period. And so now I find myself thinking back to some of those difficult projects. What would have happened if instead of slipping the schedule, I had been forced to ship on the original release date? Answer: the software flatly wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t just have been bad, it would have been an existential catastrophe. And it would have taken many months to fix, not many weeks.

So perhaps that’s where we are with the Obamacare site. I hope not, but it’s sure starting to look that way. And if things really are this bad, I really, really hope there a Plan B. Beefed up phone banks. Paper and pencil. Something.

Alternatively, maybe the reporting on this stuff has now swung around to being too pessimistic. Maybe the biggest problems will get sorted out in the next few weeks and everything will be OK. Stay tuned.

POSTSCRIPT: And while I’m at it, I have to add my voice to all those who are sort of agog over the missed chance on this from Republicans. Under normal circumstances, this stuff would be front-page news, with the Obama administration hunkered down and taking hailstorms of flak from all directions. Instead, the shutdown has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and has even provided a built-in excuse for all the website problems. For a party that has dedicated nearly its entire existence to trashing Obamacare, Republicans sure have scored an own goal here.

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“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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