The Uninsured Are Now Unpaid Alpha Testers for the Government

Decoding the tech world.
Oct. 30 2013 10:36 AM

The Uninsured Are Now Unpaid Alpha Testers for the Government

They should get discounts on their premiums.

Jeffrey Zients
Jeffrey Zients testifies before the Senate Budget Committee on April 11, 2013, in Washington.

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Jeff Zients, former director of the Office of Management and Budget and current leader of the “tech surge” team to fix, has drawn a line in the sand: Nov. 30. That is the date by which “ will be smooth for a vast majority of users,” he said on a press call last week.

David Auerbach David Auerbach

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is

I don’t think Zients set that date. Here’s why. Dec. 15 is the deadline for people to sign up in order to have insurance by Jan. 1, which is when marketplace coverage begins. Obviously the earlier more people sign up, the better. But past Jan. 1, you then have three months—until March 31—to get insurance before you’re penalized under the mandate.

The administration does not want to change these dates any further, and they definitely want coverage to start on Jan. 1. Insurers are already warning of premium sticker shock if open enrollment goes beyond March 31—whether their warnings are legitimate or not, I don’t think the administration wants to find out. So for all of Zients’ prestige and authority, I’m assuming the administration’s response to any request for time beyond Nov. 30 was: “But it’ll work on Dec. 1, right?”


On his Friday call, Zients differentiated between’s “scale” issues and its “functionality” issues. I believe this marks the first time that the administration has admitted that’s problems went far beyond the site being overloaded. Zients said that account creation had now been fixed, with more than 90 percent of users now able to create accounts. But only 30 percent have been able to complete an actual insurance application. And that’s not even to say that the application is correct, owing to reports of children getting listed as multiple spouses and the like.

If only 30 percent of people can actually complete an application on a website, why on earth is the website still up? So people can play insurance-application roulette with 7–3 odds against them? Why not take the site down until it works?

Well, remember how there was very little testing done on the system? It seems that not only was very little testing done, but testing frameworks weren’t set up. That means the team fixing not only has a lot of bugs to fix, but they don’t have infrastructure in place to identify and reproduce the bugs, which are the first step to fixing them. Under a tight deadline, any such infrastructure will be ad hoc and inadequate. So it’s important that stays open simply so that potential applicants can run into bugs and report them.

In effect, the uninsured are now serving as alpha testers—i.e., guinea pigs—of a mostly untested system. As they are now serving as de facto government workers, I think they deserve a discount on their premiums, preferably taken out of the contractors’ fat paychecks.

Nonetheless, Zients’ stats and admissions of reality were refreshing and bode well. I am more ambivalent about the promotion of data-hub contractor QSSI, owned by insurer UnitedHealth Group, to the role of “overseeing the entire operation.” QSSI is one of those contractors that "have not met expectations," to borrow a line from Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who testifies on before the House on Wednesday. As we saw, QSSI admitted that their $85 million component broke down on Day One. QSSI also screwed up Housing and Urban Development’s reverse-mortgage HERMIT system in 2009–2011, for which they were paid a cool $32 million.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.