The Affordable Care Act is more than just a website, President Barack Obama told Americans in an address from the White House rose garden. Yet, after three weeks of urging patience with tech problems on the federal health insurance exchange, the commander in chief expressed his own impatience.
"There's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process, and I think it's fair to say nobody's more frustrated by that than I am," he said.
The president said his administration is now working with outside technology experts to try to address just how to fix the Healthcare.gov website and enrollment system which serves as the portal for 36 states that opted out of building their own marketplaces.
"We've had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team. And we're well into a tech surge to fix the problem, " he said.
But the administration offered few details about those IT experts, and offered no timeline for how quickly the problems will be resolved.
"One of the problems with the Obama administration launching this has been their lack of transparency," said Robert Laszewski, president of insurance industry consulting firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates.
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Laszewski had hoped the president would offer more details on the true extent of the problems making it difficult for people to enroll online.
"Just exactly what is wrong with the computer system? How long will it take to fix?" he asked. "How can they really expect to fix this on the run?"
Evan Burfield, a former federal technology contractor who now heads technology incubator firm 1776, said the administration may not yet know the full extent of the problems.
"You have—I think it's eight contractors and each one's working a different piece," he explained. "What it really feels like is this hasn't integrated together particularly well."
In 2009, Burfield worked with a team from CGI Federal, the lead firm responsible for building the federal exchange, to build Recovery.gov—the federal site that tracked spending of federal stimulus funds. In that case, he said the Obama administration approached the project like a tech start-up.
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"They brought in a small set of innovative players," he said. "It was six to eight really key technologists sitting around a table with government for a number of months getting this thing built."
The Department of Health and Human Services went with a traditional federal IT contracting process, enlisting dozens of IT firms to build different parts of the infrastructure needed to carry out enrollment, including CGI; QSSI, a unit of UnitedHealth Group; Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed Martin.
"That's not the way you see start-ups in the commercial world building technology anymore," Burfield said.
Burfield said other agencies, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, have had more success using a more targeted private-sector strategy for contracting with IT firms.
"Ultimately fixing that—that structural issue—and really getting at how the government buys technology, I think would make a tremendous impact on the effectiveness of government," he said.
But first, the administration is focused on getting the federal exchange up and running smoothly.
—By Bertha Coombs. Follow her on Twitter: