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What Developers Can Learn from Obamacare’s Website Problems

What Developers Can Learn from Obamacare’s Website Problems

These three problems with HealthCare.gov highlight three major risk exposures that can cost web developers time, money, and new business.

Thursday, January 9, 2014/Categories: errors-and-omissions

The recent struggles of HealthCare.gov’s insurance exchanges highlight important liability concerns for web developers and IT professionals.

To better understand the liabilities web developers face, let’s look at the website’s three main problems:

  • Traffic problems. The website’s first and most obvious problem occurred shortly after launch, when users rushed to sign up, only to find the website overwhelmed and malfunctioning due to the massive amount of traffic. When most people think about web traffic problems, they assume they occur because of a problem with the server, but as tech blogger Paul Adams points out, the site’s problems were caused by architecture as well. Adams suggests the developers erred by making the site synchronous – as user accounts and information were created, they were validated and checked in real time. Instead, the site could have used an asynchronous system, which would let users create accounts, browse, and find information on plans, while their personal information was added to a queue to be checked later during less busy times (Adams points out that this is how Amazon.com works).  In other words, some of the website’s malfunctions can be attributed to its designed, which makes its developers responsible. 
  • Incorrect data. While most people see the problems the site has on its surface (the inability to handle web traffic and process user requests), there’s actually a much more substantial issue on the backend. Healthcare.gov sends incorrect data to insurance companies. After users log in and sign up for an insurance plan, the website sends their information to an insurance company through a form called an 834 EDI data transmission. This form lists the vital personal information insurance companies need to know to offer coverage. The Washington Post has reported that the Obamacare website actually sends inaccurate information to insurers, even listing that one user had three wives, or that another was married to their children. This data mix-up is obviously problematic. With incorrect information, insurers might offer inappropriate policies or policies with inaccurate prices, which means the website is unable to perform its primary function.
  • Coordination problems. There are two main contractors working on HealthCare.gov, QSSI and CGI. Each contractor works on different aspects of the site and coordinating their efforts can lead to difficulties. As an IT contractor, you may find yourself in a situation where you work on one piece of a project while other contractors work on a separate but related parts. Coordinating can be difficult, leading to bugs and difficulty testing when all the pieces are put together. After the failed launch, the government has tried to resolve this issue by putting QSSI in charge of fixing the website, making it the IT project manager and thus responsible for overseeing the work CGI, the other contractor.

Rush Jobs: Dealing with Client Expectations

Perhaps one of the most important takeaways from the Obamacare rollout is how to manage client expectations. CGI and QSSI have argued they were rushed to complete the website by the government and not given adequate time to test and debug it.

Most IT professionals face a similar situation at least once in their career. Your client wants the task completed at an unreasonable pace; if you agree to their deadline, you’ll have to cut corners somewhere. You’re in a difficult situation: you don’t want to tell your client you can’t meet their demands (which looks bad for your business), but at the same time you can't risk delivering subpar work.

Remember that IT is a service industry in addition to being a technical one. You need to maintain strong client relationships, and the best way to do this is by being honest, managing their expectations, and delivering a fully-functioning product (not one you’ll have to debug later).

How to Protect Your Business from Lawsuits

Errors and Omissions Insurance protects your business from the problems we’ve identified above, should any of them lead to a client lawsuit. Lawsuits over incomplete work, malfunctions, or data errors can all be covered by an E&O policy.

Anyone who has worked in web development knows that you can be sure you've coded everything correctly, but find that the website doesn’t work. You'll go through the painstaking process of debugging, which can be baffling. Sometimes the smallest issues end up taking the longest to fix. Errors and Omissions Insurance protects you from the unpredictable nature of your work. If you fail to meet a deadline or have a problem with the backend data generated by the website, E&O can cover your professional liabilities. 

Want more information? Check out the post “Why E&O Is More Important for Tech Firms Than Others.”

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