HealthCare.gov, the website that’s supposed to allow Americans to sign up for insurance plans in Obamacare’s new federally-run insurance marketplaces, has been plagued with technological issues since its launch at the beginning of the month. The site has been running too slowly and crashing, preventing some people from completing the application process. “No one is madder about the Web site than I am, which means it’s going to get fixed,” President Obama said at a news conference about the website glitches on Monday.
At least one programmer is volunteering for the job.
Matthew McCall, an advocate for open source technology, has launched a White House petition asking the federal government to release the code for HealthCare.gov. That would allow outside programmers to take a look and see if they can help figure out what’s wrong.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, McCall explained that the idea behind the petition is pretty simple. He’s a proponent of Obamacare, and he wants to help the technology match the policy. “Hey, I’m from the open source community, and I’d like to help out on HealthCare.gov! If you guys give me a chance, I’ll take a look at the code and see if I can contribute in any way,” McCall said. “I’m sure I’m not the only one.”
He’s not. More than 1,500 people have signed his petition so far, and other members of the tech industry have echoed his calls for open sourcing. And as the Atlantic reported over the summer, much of the work that went into constructing the federal site relied on this type of collaboration with the open source community on a smaller scale.
McCall pointed out that the government is already engaged in open source projects in other areas. For instance, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has had a lot of success with an open source electronic health records system called VistA. The VA collaborated with the open source community, as well as other people outside of the federal government, to encourage mutually beneficial innovation on the project — and ultimately bring down the overall cost of implementing the system.
At least so far, the federal government hasn’t made moves to take McCall up on his offer when it comes to HealthCare.gov. As the issues have persisted, the Department of Health and Human Services has reiterated that it’s “working around the clock” to make improvements to the site. There’s been a rush of speculation about exactly where to lay the blame for the health exchange’s technological issues.
“I think right now everyone is wildly speculating about what exactly is wrong with the platform, and the number of people who have actually seen the problematic code is very small,” McCall told ThinkProgress. “There are several articles and thoughts out there that speculate by forensically analyzing the platform’s inputs and outputs, but they seem to me to be best guesses.”
Along those lines, Slate recently reported that the lack of general awareness about the technology sector has allowed some misleading information to spread about HealthCare.gov. For instance, a source recently told the New York Times that “5 million lines of software code may need to be rewritten” to fix the issues with a site — a statistic that sounds scary, but doesn’t necessarily signal anything meaningful for programmers. Some lines of code contain a single character, while others are much more complex. The number of lines themselves don’t say much about the scope of the project.
McCall, for what it’s worth, doesn’t think that the current website glitches are “incredibly catastrophic.” He noted that the site’s loudest critics “often seem to be mixing technology and policy when they’re making these sort of arguments.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to address. McCall pointed out that while launching any type of product inevitably has an initial phase of glitches, HealthCare.gov has experienced particularly serious glitches so far. “It seems that the back-end system is having the lion’s share of the issues, from my understanding — and we as the open-source community can’t really get eyes on that code to understand what technical issues are going on,” he said.
On Tuesday, the federal government announced that it’s launching a “technology surge,” bringing on additional experts and specialists to help fix HealthCare.gov. A mix of government employees, contractors, Silicon Valley veterans, and Presidential Innovation Fellows will help with the project.
McCall thinks that’s a step in the right direction. “Mobilizing more people with expertise is always a good thing to help solve the problem,” he said. “I think we’re still the phase where we’re trying to unpack exactly what the problem is — which is the whole idea behind why I filed my petition. Bringing more eyes and individuals in to help better understand and diagnose these issues is a good idea.”