Technology experts say healing what ails the Healthcare.gov website will be a tougher task than the Obama administration acknowledges.
"It's going to cost a lot of tax dollars to get this done," says Bill Curtis, senior vice president and chief scientist at CAST, a French software analysis company with offices in the U.S.
Curtis says programmers and systems analysts start fixing troubled websites by addressing the glitches they can see. But based on his analysis, he believes the ongoing repairs are likely to reveal even deeper problems, making it tough to predict when all the site's issues will be resolved.
"Will it eventually work? Yes, because they have to make it work," he says. “But it'll be very expensive."
Curtis and other technology executives say the site's problems are the result of poor management of its many working parts. They also believe, as congressional testimony has revealed, the site suffered from a lack of testing once all its systems were in place.
The federal health insurance exchange website —which cost taxpayers more than $600 million to build, according to the Government Accountability Office— has been crippled by technical problems since its Oct. 1 launch. Since then, everyone from top White House officials to the contractors who worked on the site have been called before congressional committees to determine what went wrong and who is to blame.
The White House originally promised to have the site running smoothly by the end of November. But at a news conference last week, President Obama said he couldn't guarantee that the site will be completely bug free by then.
The HealthCare.gov site is supposed to serve as a marketplace where people can enter their personal information, search and sign up for required health care coverage. But the site is a patchwork quilt of sorts. It pulls together a slew of contributions from various government contractors and attempts to join the structure with the systems of participating insurance companies.
Experts say the amount of information coursing through HealthCare.gov dwarfs that of any other government website, making it more similar to a high-traffic e-commerce operation such as Amazon.com or eBay. They contend the government didn't design the site with the kind of retail-like infrastructure it needs to keep up with demand and failed to knit its pieces together in an efficient way.
Curtis says visible parts of the website's programming code reveal a host of analytic and data coordination failures — a red flag that the site wasn't designed by people with a lot of experience building high-traffic websites. He notes that government projects are typically awarded to the lowest bid, a factor that limits the amount of money a contractor can make. As a result, bid-winners don't always assign their top people to those jobs.
Himanshu Sareen, CEO of Icreon Tech, a New York-based web and mobile design and development firm, says the government has made some progress fixing the site in recent weeks, but there are still big problems. He worries that it is operating at half the capacity it needs to.
Indeed, fewer than 27,000 people signed up for insurance through the federal website during the first month of open enrollment in the 36 states, according to federal health officials. Nearly 1 million more applied for coverage and were waiting to finalize decisions.
Sareen says he's shocked that so few people have been able to sign up. He says the government should focus on fixing the website's telephone support centers, the place where many frustrated insurance seekers are looking for help.
Michael Smith, a vice president of product development and operations for Compuware Corp., says the site's operations have improved significantly. Recent testing of HealthCare.gov's visible parts done by Compuware APM show seven states with unacceptable response times, down from 26 states on Oct. 25.
Even so, Smith says the government needs to inform the public that it takes time and patience to fix problem websites.
"They're building something that's never been built before, so there's no prescription for how to do it," Smith says.
And there's no better way to improve public opinion than to fix the site as quickly as possible, says Wally Krantz, creative director for The Brand Union, a global brand strategy consultancy that works with clients ranging from Time Warner Cable to The Coca-Cola Co.
Krantz says people will forget about its technical problems once they get their insurance coverage.
"If they ultimately get the website working, it'll just be another thing that people who want it to fail will bring up," Krantz says. "I don't think this story has legs beyond that."