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December 8, 2013

Health care website proves controversial

Folks who hope that technology will save us from the problems we have created for ourselves (e.g. climate change) should take a closer look at the current HealthCare.gov website controversy.

As you must know by now, the roll-out of the Affordable Health Care Act (aka ObamaCare) has been rife with technical problems. Users have experienced long wait times, they are getting inaccurate information and even the insurance companies are having difficulty getting information about who has signed up, as well as incorrect information.

In short, people are annoyed, confused and, consequently, unhappy. Most Republicans and many Democrats are criticizing the operation of the website and the president is taking heat. However, I’m pretty sure that by the time you read this some of the technical problems will have been solved.

But how and why did this mess occur?

When Google rolls out a new application, while it is not perfect, there is a general acceptance of its adequate performance and this, coupled to a trust that bugs will be identified and fixed on a timely basis, causes very few ripples. Sometimes Google issues a “Beta” version that invites sophisticated users to try it out and report bugs before the actual application is released. This is a useful accepted practice in software development that will generally improve the product.

So why did the US government not follow this path? Many pundits have proposed answers to this question.

Some think that anything the government attempts is doomed to be inefficient as well as costly while others quote the old saw, “To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer.” But like most complex problems there are no easy answers.

Private corporations like Google have fewer accountability regulations restraining them than does the U.S. government. When I worked for the U.S. Navy we had a saying to the effect, “when you award the contract to the lowest bidder, what kind of results do you expect?”

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