Healthcare.gov – An IT Teachable Moment

As a major IT system rollout Healthcare.gov should have included extensive testing to ensure proper functionality

 

The failure of the healthcare.gov website boggles the imagination. Even today, the front-end shopping experience is broken and keeps collapsing. But worse, there are also persistent errors in the systems that authenticate users, determine eligibility for subsidies or for Medicaid, and hand-off purchasing information to insurers. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage program rests on top of a complex digital infrastructure, and that infrastructure is failing as well.

Who would have thought that a three-year, $600 million project would be released to the public when it had only been through a maximum of two weeks of integration testing? Where were the adults in the room? Didn’t the various levels of management know that this is more than a system of engagement? It’s a system of record as well, and as such, there are additional requirements to be satisfied beyond just handing transactions.

The last great example of this type of disaster I recall was the Hershey SAP migration. Hershey Foods Corp. invested $112 million to migrate from its existing ERP systems to SAP in 1999. The new system had been in development for a number of years but was inadequately tested prior to going live. Management insisted the system be up before the Halloween holiday so they could better manage inventory and sales. Unfortunately, the new system had a number of bugs in it and the new database was flawed. Hershey couldn’t keep track of sales and inventory, was unable to deliver $100 million in candy to stores for the holiday and ended up with a 19 percent drop in revenues for the third quarter of 1999.

Where Was Management?

The story out of Washington, D.C., with respect to healthcare.gov may sound good to the uninitiated, but to anyone who has been involved in software development, it doesn’t add up. Either the individuals involved were incompetent and didn’t know the levels of testing that needed to be conducted or, when they informed management of the problems, management – all the way up the chain to President Obama  – chose to ignore the reality and charge full speed ahead.

The reality is that all new systems need to go through a series of testing cycles. First is unit test, followed by integration, systems, stress and volume testing. It’s important that business executives understand what each phase is and why it must be exercised in full to the satisfaction of management and the expected user community.