"We’re building a complicated piece of technology," Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said on the first day of Obamacare, "and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple."
The Apple analogy has been oft-used by the Obama administration -- including by President Obama himself.
"A couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system, and within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it," Obama said. "I don’t remember anybody suggesting Apple should stop selling iPhones or iPads or threatening to shut down the company if they didn’t."
But the Obama administration doesn't have a basically working product that would be improved by a software update. They have a Web site that almost nobody has been able to successfully use. If Apple launched a major new product that functioned as badly as Obamacare's online insurance marketplace, the tech world would be calling for Tim Cook's head.
The good news for Obamacare is that lots of people want to sign up. Lots and lots of people. Many more, in fact, than anyone expected. The bad news is that the Obama administration's online insurance marketplace -- which serves 34 states -- can't handle the success.
"The amount of demand is really driving the issues," a senior administration official told me. "But we’re adding capacity every hour."
Yes, the overwhelming crush of traffic is behind many of the Web site's failures. But the Web site was clearly far, far from prepared for traffic at anywhere near these levels. That's a planning flaw: The Obama administration badly underestimated the level of interest. The fact that the traffic is good news for the law doesn't obviate the fact that the site's inability to absorb that traffic is bad news for the law.
Lots of people are seeing this screen when they try to sign up for Obamacare.
Some of the problems on the site don't require any particular coding experience to identify. While the design is clean and clear, the instructions can be confusing. For instance, when you choose your username, the site says: "The username is case sensitive. Choose a username that is 6-74 characters long and must contain a lowercase or capital letter, a number, or one of these symbols _.@/-."
Making matters worse, the warning that your username doesn't comply disappears when you click your cursor in the password field, rather than when you type in a conforming username. (At least for me. Though a few screens after that, the site crashed on me entirely.)
No one knows how many people have actually signed up through the federal exchanges. As of Thursday morning, health-care reporters were desperately trying to find even one. Eventually, Chad Henderson was of Georgia was located. He was subsequently interviewed by pretty much every news organization in the country. According to his Facebook page, he was also asked to be on a conference call put on by the Department of Health and Human Services, which suggests that they're not exactly overwhelmed with successful applicants to trot out before the press.
While we can't know for sure, it's possible and even likely that the number of visitors who are actually being able to sign up for insurance is quite low.
Republicans who decided to shut down the government this week rather than relentlessly message against the Affordable Care Act's glitches did the law a great favor. The site's flaws are real -- and if there was more focus on them, they'd be quite embarrassing.
Of course, the problem for Republicans is that the proximate cause of the problems directly undercuts their agenda. The fact that the site is buckling under the traffic is not a reason to defund or delay the law. Indeed, it's perverse to use the overwhelming demand as a reason to take the law away from the people who so clearly need it. And even if it takes a few more days or even weeks until the site is working as well as it should be, the open enrollment period still has another five months and 27 days (or so) to run. These are fixable, not fatal, problems.
But the Obama administration did itself -- and the millions of people who wanted to explore signing up -- a terrible disservice by building a Web site that, four days into launch, is still unusable for most Americans. They knew that the only way to quiet the law's critics was to implement it effectively. And building a working e-commerce Web site is not an impossible task, even with the added challenges of getting various government data services to talk to each other. Instead, the Obama administration gave critics arguing that the law isn't ready for primetime more ammunition for their case.
There are signs the site is improving. The early word from insurers is that basically no one was able to sign up during the first two days, though successful applications began to "trickle" in on day three. HHS says that added capacity has cut wait times by a third, though wait times aren't the only problem, as I found when I got through the queue only to have the site crash on me five or six screens in. The Obama administration need to get the marketplace working, and fast.