The White House says that its battered and bruised Obamacare website is now on the mend. After managing to stay up just 43 percent of the time in early November, the administration says, Healthcare.gov now boasts 95 percent up-time. “We have a much more stable system that’s reliably open for business,” is the word from Jeffrey Zients, the man appointed to patch up the site, which is meant to let Americans compare and purchase healthcare plans.
Certainly, this sounds like progress. But if you look at Healthcare.gov for what it is — a simple e-commerce site — the White House is still years behind the times. Welcome back to Web 1.0.
According to The Washington Post, the Obama administration said Healthcare.gov processed 18,000 insurance enrollments during the most recent 24-hour period, “nearly double the previous record.” Great. But consider that on Cyber Monday last year, Amazon filled 306 orders per second. That’s 26.5 million orders in the most recent 24-hour period. This year, it’s hard to imagine that number won’t be higher.
Sure, Amazon has been at this for 18 years, and the White House only launched its site in October. But the point is that the technology exists to handle e-commerce traffic on an epic scale, and the White House hasn’t figured out how to use it. It so happens that Amazon is now offering the world a set of online infrastructure services, the AWS cloud, specifically designed to handle the massive amounts of traffic the White House hoped to juggle from the get-go (Netflix and Dropbox are both clients). But it took a different route, and in the simple terms of e-commerce, it’s still stuck in 1996.
In a story published yesterday, CNBC quotes an anonymous insurance industry source as saying that little more than 125,000 people managed to enroll for health insurance through Healthcare.gov through the end of November. By comparison, when Amazon filed for its IPO in 1997, it said that through the end of the previous year it had topped 180,000 customer accounts. In other words, Obama is still trying to reach a plateau that Amazon reached 17 years ago.
After its “tech surge” meant to shore up the site from utter failure, the administration says that its new, improved target is to handle 800,000 unique visitors a day on Healthcare.gov. Yes, that beats the Amazon in its toddler days. In December 1996, the company claimed about 50,000 daily visits. But this past October, Amazon handled an average of more than 3.5 million unique visitors per day, according to ComScore, and that was on desktop PCs alone. In this respect, Obamacare still lagging somewhere in the early aughts.
Then consider that healthcare.gov can only accept about 50,000 visitors at any one time. The site’s carrying capacity reportedly maxed out closer to 35,000 on Monday, and if you tried to visit after this maximum was reached, you ran into the administration’s “queuing” tool — surely the most egregious anachronism on the site.
To handle overload on Healthcare.gov, the administration has implemented a “feature” that asks locked-out visitors to provide their email addresses so that the system can notify them when the site has room. Imagine any other online retail site in A/B testing such an option in 2013.
These days, e-commerce sites don’t succeed on cost or selection as much as “customer experience.” By that measure, it’s hard to imagine something that sucks more than “queuing.” Would anyone really go back to Amazon to buy something later if they were blocked out the first time? The feds might as well put up an “under construction” GIF and be done with it.
It’s on this last point that the fate of Obamacare truly depends. After more than a decade-and-a-half of Amazon, not to mention the rest of the internet, an expectation threshold has been set. If a certain standard of performance isn’t met, people will go elsewhere. Since would-be buyers of health insurance in 36 states have no other options, many of them will simply not bother, regardless of the individual mandate.