Blank boxes where security questions are supposed to appear. Pleas to “be patient.” Error messages galore. Notices that “the system is busy right now.” Web pages timing out before they load. Garbled lines of text riddled with stray question marks.
Technology experts and government officials were stumped about the reasons for the computer glitches plaguing the Obama administration’s launch of new health-insurance exchanges. They variously blamed an unexpected deluge of customers and outright errors that information technology (IT) teams laboured throughout the day to fix.
In one of the biggest mysteries, the website for New York State of Health received 10 million visits by Tuesday afternoon, a deluge a spokesman called “overwhelming and unanticipated.”
The federal government’s healthcare.gov portal logged over 2.8 million visitors by Tuesday afternoon, said Marilyn Tavenner administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) – “seven times more users than have ever been on the Medicare.gov at one time.” Many visitors were greeted with: “The system is down at the moment. We’re working to resolve the issue as soon as possible. Please try again later.”
It was not clear that volume alone explained the problems.
IT had for months been viewed as the exchanges’ most likely Achilles heel, and on opening day experts were divided as to the cause of the snags. The best guess of outside IT experts was that traffic volume more than software bugs was at fault.
One insurer offering policies on the New York exchange said its technical experts “read the error messages as the system is just buckling under high demand,” adding, “it doesn’t look like it’s a bug. Once they’ve spun up more servers, the site should stabilize.”
The security questions that are central to insuring that people are who they say they are – a potential glitch in the marketplaces that critics have warned about for months – were particularly problematic.
On the Texas exchange, answers to the security questions were initially met with the warning that two answers cannot be the same – even if they weren’t – or that they were in the wrong format. After a few more tries the questions did not show up at all. Virtually all the federally run exchanges, from Maine to the Carolinas and from Iowa to Arizona, had the same IT flaw.
Would-be users were repeatedly asked to “be patient,” even when they tried to access chat boxes and other devices meant as workarounds to IT problems.
Bob Hanson, spokesman for the Kansas Insurance Department, said that state officials have been warning people for weeks not to try to sign up on Tuesday: “We’re advising people to wait a week or two.”