When a Health IT Rollout Runs Off the Rails

If ever a large-scale health IT project needed a reboot, it was the rollout of Healthcare.gov. Fortunately, it got one — in the form of an emergency, behind-the-scenes “tech surge” assembled to salvage the government’s new health insurance portal after a halting launch.

To recap, only six people completed the online enrollment process on Oct. 1, 2013, the day Healthcare.gov officially opened for business, according to notes from war room meetings at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency charged with implementing the site. Things didn’t improve much the next two days, with a cumulative total of 248 enrollments successfully submitted and at times up to 40,000 consumers stuck in a waiting stage.

Malfunctions crashed Healthcare.gov twice more the last week of October, the second time while Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), the parent department of CMS, was testifying before Congress about the website’s problems.

Administration officials advised consumers who experienced trouble with the online process to apply by phone — or even mail in a hard copy form.

President Obama called it a “well-documented disaster” and pundits had a field day.

“Only the government could come up with a website that’s slower than sending something by mail.” — Jay Leno

“If you are in need of healthcare, you have two choices: You can wait for them to get the site fixed, or you can enroll in medical school, graduate, and then just take care of yourself.” — Jimmy Kimmel

“People are getting a busy signal when they try to apply over the phone. You can’t use the Internet and you can’t use the phone. So now fax machines are like, ‘Look who’s come crawling back!’” — Jimmy Fallon

To its credit, the administration retooled and relaunched the site by December 2013 and hit its stated goal of signing up 7 million people by the end of the first quarter of 2014. Nonetheless, substantial damage had already been done. Hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent, and by April 2014 Sebelius had resigned after taking ultimate responsibility for the launch debacle.

What went wrong

In retrospect, the management and technical problems that plagued Healthcare.gov throughout its development seem fairly apparent.

A February 2016 report issued by HHS’ Office of the Inspector General stated that the most critical misstep made by the project team leading up to launch was “absence of clear leadership, which caused delays in decision-making, lack of clarity in project tasks and the inability of CMS to recognize the magnitude of problems as the project deteriorated.” Other contributing factors included devoting too much time to policy issues rather than to actual site development, poor technical decisions and improper management of the key development contract. The report also criticized CMS’ organizational structure and culture, which hampered coordination, pushed back against warnings of “bad news” and failed to alter plans in the face of problems.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a separate analysis, pointed out CMS shortcomings in the areas of capacity planning for the site, as well as failure to correct software coding errors and implement full functionality prior to launch. Additionally, GAO said, “Healthcare.gov and its supporting systems were not fully tested prior to launch, and test documentation was missing key elements such as criteria for determining whether a system passed a test.”

A CIO retrospective summarized the project’s faults and how the fiasco could have been prevented: “Healthcare.gov was a single, Big Bang rollout that couldn’t be stopped.” The huge undertaking should have been tracked forward in incremental stages, with early and complete testing, and a more flexible scope to find areas of risk before they unexpectedly appeared.

Not a singular instance

Despite all the negative fallout, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised with Healthcare.gov’s early-phase stumbles. Standish Group, an advisory firm focusing on software project performance, studied 3,555 projects from 2003 through 2012 that had labor costs of at least $10 million.

The takeaway: Only about 6 percent were deemed successful. A majority, 52 percent were “challenged” — meaning over budget, behind schedule or failed to meet user expectations. The rest, about 42 percent, were either scrapped or started anew from scratch.

Further research, from Forrester Consulting, shows that less than 40 percent of IT executives believe their internal IT organizations can regularly deliver projects on time and within budget, due in large part to continually changing user requirements and overburdened departmental resources.

In general commercial environments, such a low success rate may be accepted as a “cost of doing business,” and the worst outcome could be scope creep or project delays. In healthcare, the stakes are higher, with patient lives potentially on the line when IT systems don’t work or aren’t available when needed. That’s why many healthcare entities are looking for trusted third-party help in gaining control over their interconnected systems and expanding ecosystems.

NetDirector has been around for almost 15 years, offering cloud-based services that are now considered a staple solution for data integration in healthcare and other industries. Learn more about the HealthData Exchange platform here or request a free demo.