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Pity the Poor Fools Who Built


This is what happens when 55 contractors and an infinite number of bureaucrats build a website.

At least 55 major contractors were involved in creating, managing, or supporting, the new consumer database of insurance plans created under the health reform law, but their public comments since it went live on October 1 are eerily similar, boiling down to either "Not our fault," or "No comment."

Fair enough.

When a project is hacked into 55 pieces, it doesn't much matter if some of the pieces went to names like Booz Allen Hamilton (NYSE:BAH), Experian (OTCMKTS:EXPGY), General Dynamics (NYSE:GD), Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), Oracle (NYSE:ORCL), and UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH).

It's going to blow.

Throw in oversight divided among several government agencies. Add a Greek chorus of political opponents making dire predictions of imminent disaster.

And then there was one horrible error right on the home page, made by an anonymous bureaucrat who never took Build Your Own Website 101. Users were forced to enroll in the site, identifying themselves and answering a series of fairly personal questions, before they were allowed to just browse the health insurance options that they might be able to get through

As everyone knows now, that enrollment process was broken anyway.

This week, some positive news is buried in the avalanche of criticism of

First of all, somebody reversed that earlier decision and made available a way to browse the options before committing to anything. Users still have to answer a bunch of questions first, but that's unavoidable, given the complexities of our private health care system.

And at least that part works, taking a load off the system while programmers work -- supposedly around the clock -- to patch up the system.

If they pull that off, some of America's biggest corporations might avoid the public relations disaster of taking a whole lot of taxpayer money for a broken product.

In fact, it is quite likely that no individual is to blame, which is a dubious benefit of this kind of crowdsourcing. The Wall Street Journal identifies the problem as a bottleneck in the registration process where a number of programs developed by different companies collide.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group, blames "legacy contractors with deep political pockets" for the problems facing the health care exchanges. It has attempted to place the blame where it is due. But ironically, the databases that promise government contract transparency don't work very well either.

The biggest single contractor in the project is CGI Federal (NYSE:GIB), the US subsidiary of a Canadian company, which received at least $88 million to build and support the federal exchange. Another $55 million went to Quality Software Services for development of the "data hub," which is supposed to determine the insurance buyer's eligibility for federal subsidies.

There's good news in here, too, for the big health care insurers: An estimated 14.6 million people had visited the federal site as of Monday, indicating strong interest.

Nobody, not even the people running the exchange, knows how many people have successfully signed up for insurance online. It is safe to assume that the number is very small. US Sen. Lisa Murkowski has sent an open letter indicating that, as of Monday, not a single Alaskan had managed to enroll.

Some of the 14 state-run health care exchanges have reported that they are running smoothly, including those in Connecticut, Kentucky, New York State, Nevada, and Washington. Some have even reported impressive numbers for completed enrollments.

For those that are not -- including, of course, the federal site -- insurance companies are encouraging people to go directly to their sites, and are sending out paper application forms. Consumer advocacy groups also are steering people straight to the insurers. The "navigators" hired to help consumers use the federal exchange are enrolling people by phone or sending out paper applications to people unable to use

So, according to the Washington Post, even in its broken state, the federal exchange has turned up "a flood of people eager to get health benefits for the first time."

That's why they are turning to "Plan B," which is the old dead-tree application process.
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