Obamacare’s Tech Problems Can Be Solved

The problems with health-insurance exchanges aren't anything that can't be solved. Just ask Facebook and the Common App.



It’s been a bad couple of weeks for computer glitches.

Yesterday morning, President Obama publicly apologized in the Rose Garden for the frozen screens and other software flaws that have plagued the Affordable Care Act’s online sign-up system since its debut on October 1st. He pledged to do “everything we can possibly do” to get the system up and running the way it was intended, and to bring in computer experts from inside and outside government to tackle the challenge.

Initial reports of sign-up trouble got lost in the clamor over the Capitol shutdown; now that the government’s reopened, Republicans are taking the opportunity to hammer on the system’s flaws in their fruitless-but-relentless quest to repeal Obamacare. Health and Human Services Secretary Katherine Sebelius is taking heat for the system’s woes, with Republicans demanding that she appear before a House committee to explain the website’s failures. Michigan Congressman Fred Upton dubbed the rollout “a complete mess, beyond the worst-case scenario,” and Senator John McCain declared it a “fiasco.”

Then there’s the Common App, the online college-application program instituted 35 years ago to streamline the convoluted admissions process by allowing high-schoolers to fill out a single form for multiple colleges.

Though this one-step process has contributed to our culture’s whipped-up college-entrance frenzy (why apply to just the three colleges you really want to go to when you can apply to dozens that you kinda sorta want to go to, since it’s so easy?), it has also been a force for leveling the college-entrance playing field.

Until this admissions season, that is.

Since the August 1st debut of a new, overhauled Common App, students have encountered delays in logging in, paying for and submitting their applications, while colleges have had trouble uploading them. The situation is dire enough that colleges are extending early-decision application deadlines for desperate students and suggesting alternate ways of applying. At Ursinus College, the vice president of enrollment says they’re contemplating mailing out paper applications that kids would, you know, fill out with a pen. How antiquatedly quaint!

And then there’s Facebook. Early Monday morning, the cry of the turtle was heard throughout the land when users found themselves unable to update their statuses (whether or not anything momentous was happening to them). Twitter lit up in outrage, with one stymied user wailing in horror: What if my birthday had been today? Two and a half hours later, Facebook announced it had resolved the problem, and released a statement explaining what went wrong that was pretty much incomprehensible, to me at least. (Sample: “The intent of the automated system is to check for configuration values that are invalid in the cache and replace them with updated values from the persistent store.” Oh-kay.)

So, all in all, a weak week for technology. But a pretty good one for human nature, since we’re still the ones who make these things—and fix them when they go awry. Facebook’s been tidied up already. The Common App says it’s working on its problems. And Obamacare? There’s no reason to believe the insurance exchanges won’t accomplish what they’re meant to, eventually; flaws in the software aren’t flaws in the system at large.

It makes sense that the haters are hating on this; they’ll jump at any excuse to disparage the president and his legacy. (My personal favorite: the Idaho politician decrying public health care—while he has 10 kids on Medicaid.) Take a look at what FactCheck.org has to say about the Republican National Committee’s lies and fabrications. And be patient. Somebody you know is already being helped by Obamacare. Chances are you will be, too, someday.