Why HealthCare.gov Was Desperate to Switch Hosting Providers


The last three months of 2013 were a roller coaster for Healthcare.gov, as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) struggled with network outages on Terremark, a subsidiary of Verizon, while juggling self-imposed deadlines for policy enrollments and payments. On November 27, 2013, The HHS signed a contract with HP to switch hosts for Healthcare.gov. Neither Verizon nor HP has released comments regarding this hosting move. However the timing of this switch is alarming, since the Terremark contract ends on March 30 – just one day before the 2014 open enrollment period ends.

Those months were fraught with major tech headaches and frustrations for government officials and citizens desperate to enroll with an insurance policy for 2014. The Affordable Health Care Act deadline for enrollment was December 24, in order to gain healthcare coverage by January 1, 2014. Additionally, customers were expected to make their first premium payments by January 10, which has since been updated to January 31st for enrolled customers.

Turbulent Beginnings

October 2013 was undoubtedly the rockiest month for Healthcare.gov, after countless bugs, clumsy navigation, account creation errors, endless loading screens, and host downtimes marked its launch. One of the most noteworthy Terremark hosting issues occurred On October 27, as visitors faced a major roadblock – an error window that read, “The system is down at the moment,” splashed across the Healthcare.gov homepage. This lead to a series of tweets and blog posts from Terremark representatives, who scrambled to fix the network connectivity issues.

Outages are a fear held by many cloud computing customers – especially those using dedicated servers, a service offered by thousands of companies, that don’t share as many resources. Companies fear, with good reason, that the difficulties faced by Healthcare.gov could potentially drive away customers and tarnish their reputation especially considering how these technical setbacks affected the total number of enrollments during the first month of Healthcare.gov operations. Only 106,185 American citizens succeeded in policy enrollment during October 2013. However, this number was a problematic measurement, since the majority of these users had not paid their first premiums. Generally, insurance companies count enrollees based on these initial payments. The Health and Human Services report continued to underwhelm, showing that over 975,000 users has started the processes but had not actually finished the policy selection plan.

Public Outcry

Website latency and downtime led to severe outcries from would-be customers. Social media buzzed with exasperation as thousands of Americans attempted to enroll in healthcare plans, only to hit error messages. Users flooded phone lines, Facebook, and Twitter with complaints.

It seems that the negative PR deterred many new visitors from using the website in October. ComScore, a web analytics company, reported that unique visitor rates significantly decreased throughout the launch month. When Healthcare.gov was fresh out of the gates on October 1st, 2013, ComScore shows that the amount of unique visitors peaked at 2.5 million users, then steadily decreased during the next 30 days.

The federal government rushed to respond to usage disasters, promising that the Healthcare.gov policy portal would be fixed by November 30. For the most part, they were able to deliver on that promise. November was characterized by shopping process restructuring, a new “remove application” button for glitchy forms, and offline enrollment options over the phone.

President Obama also got involved in responding to the severe usages and accessibility issues. He planned a meeting with several tech executives to discuss Healthcare.gov on December 17, 2013. Attendees included Twitter’s Dick Costolo, Apple’s Tim Cook, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and a dozen other leaders from companies such as Dropbox, Salesforce, and LinkedIn.

Clashing Contract and Open Enrollment Dates

The new hosting contract with Hewlett Packard has raised many eyebrows, with speculation that a transfer could lead to further Healthcare.gov downtimes and complications. The shift is expected to take a few months, but the federal government is already hard-pressed for time. The Obama administration noted that the Terremark contract is set to expire on March 30. This means that the entire Healthcare.gov website must be shuffled over to HP’s hosting services before this deadline, which happens to be just a day before 2014 open enrollment ends.

These pressing timeframes rise up amidst other tech concerns. Clint Boulton at the Wall Street Journal describes the alarming lack of a Healthcare.gov backup system, which could lead to CA strophic data loss during a major host transfer. In his article titled “Healthcare.gov Still Operating Without a Back-Up System,” Boulton notes that “… HealthCare.gov continues to operate without a twin that mirrors its functionality. Corporate CIOs consider such operational redundancy table stakes for effective disaster recovery.” Observations like this have the IT community keeping a worried eye on the Healthcare.gov hosting shift.

As of early January, there has been no word on backup plans or a hosting shift schedule for the federal Healthcare.gov website. The official blog periodically posts updates on current enrollment metrics, maintenance updates, and feature changes. It is still too early to say whether the government will be able to make the shift to HP without interruption, before the Terremark contract runs out.

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