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.
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:
We're open for enrollment! http://t.co/3B5K9e8WAl-- Access Health CT (@AccessHealthCT) October 1, 2013
We appreciate your patience as we continue to launch our systems today. Don't forget you have til Dec 15 to enroll for Jan 1 coverage!-- Access Health CT (@AccessHealthCT) October 1, 2013
Enrollment day is here and we're ready! Here's where you can find and compare plans: http://t.co/T5vfGPKp7U-- HealthSource RI (@HealthSourceRI) October 1, 2013
We're increasing our website capacity so all Rhode Islanders can access today. Contact Center specialists can help now at 855-840-4774.-- HealthSource RI (@HealthSourceRI) October 1, 2013
http://t.co/GpASXcJbQN opens at 8 a.m. today. Looking forward to seeing you then!--; MD Health Connection (@MarylandConnect) October 1, 2013
We are currently experiencing connectivity issues on http://t.co/GpASXcJbQN. Please come back and visit the site at noon. Thank you!-- MD Health Connection (@MarylandConnect) October 1, 2013
Due to heavy site traffic, you may experience delays. Don't forget, you have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage starting Jan. 1.-- ChooseHealthDelaware (@ChooseHealthDE) October 1, 2013
Sorry for the trouble, @subinev. Since launch at 8 am, we've been having technical problems due to volume. Call 1-855-355-5777 for help.-- NY State of Health (@NYStateofHealth) October 1, 2013
Thanks for all your comments and updates as you enroll. We apologize that wait times on the site and hotline are longer than expected! (1/2)-- HealthCare.gov (@HealthCareGov) October 1, 2013
We're working to fix these issues as soon as possible. Thanks for your patience (2/2)-- HealthCare.gov (@HealthCareGov) October 1, 2013
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.