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Online exchange program posed obstacles
ACA website rollout hampered enrollment
 
Published Thursday, December 26, 2013 7:07 am
by David Thackham, For The Charlotte Post

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Compared to the frustration Colby Mize felt trying to shop for health insurance at healthcare.gov, he would have preferred braving Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. 

Mize booted up his laptop last month to purchase health insurance, as mandated by the federal law. What he needed was to buy a plan with private health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. 

What he got was a succession of loading screens and a wasted hour. 

“With something this important to people as healthcare, you’d think the website would be able to handle all the people who sign up for it,” he said.  

Mize is one of approximately 20 million people  who have accessed HealthCare.gov, the embattled website that has been criticized by opponents and supporters alike. 

While President Barack Obama has asked citizens to apply over the phone or through the mail, a Winthrop University professor says the website’s basic issues are as simple as looking at the numbers. With hundreds of thousands of visitors flocking to the same website, the need for server space to store data increases. 

Stress testing, according to associate professor Stephen Dannelly, allows websites to tell whether they can handle large amounts of visitors before they log on. 

“Stress testing is just like your doctor having you run on the treadmill to see what happens with your heart,” Dannelly said. “Same goes with software. There are ways of testing whether it holds up in the load. You don’t have to have a million people online at the same time to find out if that can hold.”

It’s a process Winthrop student Edward Granger considers routine when he helps design and program websites with the Charlotte-based company Insight Business Solutions. The senior typically services a website with “waterfall testing,” where nothing continues until the last step is completed and deemed acceptable. Even if he’s designing a page where people can sign up for a country club membership, that capability is given several days of work before Granger can move on. 

“If clients are getting on and a page won’t load, that’s a big deal because that’s really shoddy construction,” he said. “The Obamacare website does that to itself, because there (are) issues where the architecture of the site isn’t optimized and crashes after hosting a few people.”

Issues lie not only in the ease of the website, but also in the minute details users need to enter in to apply for their particular program. Applicants are required to enter where they live, their income, as well as a variety of other data. 

On the other side, the website must hold exact information of what prices insurance companies will offer to users. The depth and density of data requires the space, time and effort to house them.  

Dannelly, who teaches a class on software project management, tells students the amount of effort to complete a project is not proportional to its size. 

“It’s 10 times that, with the number of man hours and money,” he said. “This is about as complex of a project as something you can think to do. But these are sophomore level kinds of things that people should know to do for software.”

On Nov. 30, tech experts with the Obama administration announced that they were on the way to achieve their self-imposed goal of handling 50,000 users at the same time and 800,000 users in the same day, according to CNN. 

Despite the measures, Mize says he’ll be much more wary trying the website the next time around. The current enrollment deadline is set for March 31, 2014. 

“Maybe next time, I’ll try a nice, long weekend, when I’ve got nothing else to do,” he said. “Until then, I’ll just have to wait and see.”

David Thackham is a senior journalism major at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. He is managing editor at The Johnsonian, Winthrop’s student newspaper.

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