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Congress to probe Healthcare.gov for politics

Was it politics or just bad design at Healthcare.gov? The problems with mobile may offer a clue

October 23, 2013 06:15 AM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. House will begin drilling into the problems at Healthcare.gov on Thursday when a panel of project contractors face the the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Fireworks are likely.

For House Republicans, the Website's performance issues are a metaphor for their broader criticisms about the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Now they want to determine whether politics, and not best IT practices, shaped the design of the ACA website. They have some grounds for looking at the question.

When the Website launched on Oct. 1, users were initially required to complete an application prior to shopping for insurance plans. That process since changed, and users can now get an idea of the plans and their cost without turning over personal information.

But the damage was done.

The design used at launch, which prevented anonymous shopping, was a political decision "to mask the 'sticker shock' of Obamacare," wrote U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of House Committee on Oversight and Government and Reform, in a letter Tuesday to federal CIO Steve VanRoekel and federal CTO Todd Park.

Issa wants a boatload of documents and explanations from VanRoekel about what went wrong with Healthcare.gov, which he termed a "colossal failure."

But did politics play a role in the role in the initial design, as Issa contends, or was it just questionable design? There's evidence of the latter, when mobile is considered.

Matt Powell, CIO of Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners, an integrated ad agency in New York that handles some big accounts such as automaker BMW, is very critical of the mobile design. Powell isn't weighing in on the politics around this issue, but he has assessed Healthcare.gov's implementation and questions some of the design decisions.

"One of the things that seems like a big miss, just in terms of delivering the right product to the right people in the right way, is the fundamental lack of mobile accessibility," said Powell.

Users accessing Healthcare.gov will hit a landing page designed for mobile use, but mobile functionality has not been extended into the entire site. From a mobile perspective, the site "is pretty bad," said Powell.

Once users get past the mobile landing pages, they will be doing a lot of pinching, zooming and scrolling to get through the Website. The risk to the ACA program is that people will tire of it and leave, said Powell.

This lack easy mobile use is a major issue, especially for the population the ACA is trying to reach -- young adults, says Powell. "They have a massive propensity to be mobile first as opposed to desktop Web users," he said.

Powell also agrees with the criticisms of the decision to require users to turn over personal information before learning more about the policies.

The exchanges put up a "hefty hurdle" just to get people in the door. "It just seems like a really bad way to drive the outcome that we want," he said.

President Barack Obama on Monday expressed his own frustration with the rollout of the website, which has suffered availability issues, apparent load balancing problems, and errors in data. At the same time, Obama defended the law, and said "the Affordable Care Act is not just a website."

The first of what will likely be a string of hearings on the ACA, is slated for Thursday before the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Scheduled to testify are contractors on the project, CGI Federal, an IT services firm, Optum, a healthcare technology company, Equifax Workforce Solutions, and Serco, a government focused contractor.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter@DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Read more about Healthcare IT in Computerworld's Healthcare IT Topic Center.



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