Obamacare Websites Worked Great, With a Few Small Exceptions. And a Bunch of Big Exceptions.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 1 2013 7:07 PM

Obamacare Websites Worked Great, With a Few Small Exceptions. And a Bunch of Big Exceptions.

People who tried to use the various federal and state healthcare websites on the first day were treated to lots of error messages.
People who tried to use the various federal and state healthcare websites on the first day were treated to lots of error messages.

Screenshot / Healthcare.gov

When a tech company launches a hotly anticipated new Web-based service, there’s always the chance that something will go wrong. So it didn’t exactly come as a shock on Tuesday morning to discover that the same applies to government agencies. Indeed, many anticipated that there would be glitches as 14 states and the District of Columbia rolled out their own separate online health-insurance exchanges, while the federal government fielded applications on behalf of dozens of other states that declined to set up their own websites. “We’re building a complicated piece of technology,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters on Monday, a day ahead of the launch, “and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple.”

Clearly Sebelius is not an avid reader of tech blogs. That aside, her plea for patience had some merit. Of course people can forgive a few technical bugs if it means finally gaining access to decent health care. And unlike Apple, state governments don’t have billions of spare dollars lying around to hire the world’s top engineering talent.

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To their credit, most of the states did manage to get some semblance of an online system up and running by the end of the day. But not before almost every single state ran into glitches, problems, delays, or confusions of one sort or another. In short, for a lot of people trying to apply for healthcare coverage on Tuesday, the experience was the cyberspace equivalent of a bad trip to the DMV. Watch as, one by one, the Twitter feeds for each state’s health-insurance marketplace greeted the new day with high hopes and exclamation points—followed inevitably by apologies and requests for patience as the visitors rolled in:

The problems don’t appear to have been the result of any concerted hacking campaigns—just a bunch of websites that weren’t prepared to handle the loads they encountered on Tuesday morning. On the plus side, the deadline for signing up isn’t until December 15. So take my colleague Matt Yglesias’ advice and chill out for a little while, then give the sites another spin in a week or so. And if you still encounter delays—hey, at least you’re at home on your couch and not stuck in line at the DMV. Or, worse, mistakenly driving your car across an airport runway.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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