Health Exchange Tech Problems Point To A Thornier Issue

Play associated audio

One week after its rocky rollout, the federal site to help you sign up for health insurance exchanges went down again overnight for additional software fixes. The Obama administration says the technology powering the marketplaces buckled under unexpectedly high traffic. But the ongoing software hiccups for point to a much thornier problem: procurement processes.

Procurement, the process by which governments decide which contractors to hire for various products and services — like software — is not a sexy topic. But it's linked to the software problems that continue to plague the behemoth system built to help millions of Americans enroll in a health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act.

The shorter-term tech problem is too many people taxing a complex software system that was rushed to launch. President Obama's Chief Technology Adviser Todd Park told USA Today that contractors built a system that could handle 50,000 people using the site at once. But when coverage signup opened Oct. 1, the traffic was five times larger than what officials planned for.

"We are doing several things at once, including adding server capacity and making software changes to make the system more efficient to handle higher volume," White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday.

(High volume may not mean high enrollment, but we don't know until the administration releases enrollment numbers in another month.)

It's an unprecedented system, too. In order for the exchange marketplace software to check on which coverage and subsidies you're eligible for, it has to ping requests to the Internal Revenue Service database, Social Security records and Homeland Security data within seconds.

"It's called an integration catastrophe really where you've got lots of different software talking to lots of different things, and an unprecedented amount of scale," says Clay Johnson, a programmer who worked inside government as a White House Innovation Fellow. The fellows looked for ways that the federal government could improve its tech services and save money. He says that while is glitchy, the real "cancer" is how the government selects the contractors hired to build these IT behemoths.

"One might look at this and go: Why can't we get the smartest people from Facebook and Google and from Twitter to come and work out these problems?" Johnson says. "The problem is that the way that federal contracting works is so burdensome that the only people who get contracts like this are experts at lobbying and experts at regulations that require you to get these sorts of contracts. And they're not experts at doing the job of building these websites."

The primary contractor behind the federal health exchange software is a global firm called CGI Federal, which didn't want to comment for this story. Johnson says it's not that CGI or other contractors behind are bad. They're probably just not the best, because the best people at these tech solutions don't bother applying.

"In order to fix these problems in the long term, what we've gotta do is encourage the federal government to open its doors to smaller, more agile vendors who are better at solving these larger problems," Johnson says.

He calls for a cultural shift, simplifying the bidding process so more firms compete against incumbents, making everyone up his game. Johnson proposes starting small, with tiny contracts, because changing a deeply entrenched contracting environment is a systemic and long-term challenge.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit


'Steve Jobs': As Ambitious As Its Title Character

Danny Boyle's new biopic, Steve Jobs, is a look at the man who made Apple mean computers, not fruit. NPR film critic Bob Mondello says it's an invigorating story told in three acts of crisis.

Could A Mushroom Save The Honeybee?

The bees that pollinate crops are on the brink of collapse. One big reason why: a virus-carrying mite. Now, researchers think a rare fungi could boost bees' immune system and attack the mite itself.

Hillary Clinton Holds 'Tough, Candid' Meeting With Black Lives Matter Activists

NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with DeRay McKesson of the group, "We The Protesters," about the meeting with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C., Friday.

Volkswagen Faces Uphill Battle In Repairing Tarnished Reputation

Volkswagen faces two enormous repair jobs: fixing its polluting diesel cars and its battered reputation. Both may be much harder to fix than anything other scandal-plagued car companies have faced.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.