Why is my state’s ACA healthcare exchange site slow?

Today marked the launch of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which included the rollout of online health insurance exchanges in every US state and Washington, DC. Ahead of the launch, several states reported difficulties getting these new websites to function properly, and many experts and pundits anticipated slow performance as the whole system went live today. So why are these sites proving so problematic? Well, we can’t know for sure, but here are a few educated guesses (based on quite a bit of experience dealing with slow and troubled web applications):

  • Integrating with existing systems is difficult. Each state has their own healthcare systems already in place that rely on a whole host of different technologies ranging from Java to COBOL. Interfacing with these existing applications can be difficult, especially if they’re slow or unresponsive.

Health Insurance Marketplace - Please wait healthcare.gov

  • There wasn’t enough time to test. Testing an application really well requires a lot of time and resources to complete. With a hard deadline of October 1 these applications might not be completely ready for the big leagues.
  • They’re dealing with a lot of load… all at once. The uninsured as well as many curious Americans swarmed these exchanges en masse as soon as they became available this morning. If these applications receive more load than anticipated, the applications could simply crash.
  • There are thousands of corner cases to account for. Families’ health care eligibility scenarios could vary in literally thousands of ways, and the teams responsible for designing the application had to account for and test all of those different situations. When the permutations climb up into the hundreds of thousands it becomes extremely difficult not only to account for these situations in the application code but also to simulate these situations in a test environment.

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  • Federal and state governments don’t have experience launching web apps on this scale. Tech companies and eCommerce giants like Twitter, Facebook or Amazon have been building applications with massive scale for years, so when it comes time to build and deploy a new one they have experienced people to do it and tried and true processes to fall back on. Most state governments don’t have the same experience, which makes it more difficult for them to “get it right.” (And, we should mention, even the tech and eCommerce companies experience slowdowns and outages pretty regularly).
  • Checking for eligibility is a lot more complicated than buying an airplane ticket. Consumers may expect all websites to respond as quickly as their favorite travel site, but as Richard Onizuka, CEO of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, commented, “Filling out an application for insurance is a much longer process than just buying a ticket to San Francisco on Orbitz.”

So if you’re experiencing poor web performance from your state’s health insurance exchange, take a deep breath and try again later. There are lot of reasons for the site to be slow, especially on their first day out of the gate. So be patient.