U.S.

Documents show HealthCare.gov couldn't handle 500 users before launch

House committee releases internal emails sent between website developers days before glitch-ridden rollout

The problem-plagued website for the federally run health insurance exchanges.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The House Energy and Commerce Committee made public on Thursday emails sent between HealthCare.gov developers outlining the vast technical problems the website faced in the week leading up to the site's botched rollout.

The emails, between IT officials and developers, including Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and Akhtar Zaman from the CMS Office of Information Services, show that just days before the site's Oct. 1 launch the website was unable to consistently handle 500 users at once in the testing phase.

The House committee has launched an investigation into the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, where uninsured Americans in 36 states have been directed to sign up for individual health insurance plans in marketplaces run by the federal government.

On Sept. 27, David Nelson, director of the office of enterprise management at CMS, said the system was failing due to problems including defective code.

"We have not been successful in moving beyond 500 concurrent users filling applications" he said. "We must give ourselves the ability to work through these tuning issues."

In an Sept. 26 email, Zaman told developers that over a three-day-period tests with 2,000 virtual users (Vusers) also failed.

"We ran several performance & stress test (PST) cycles (starting from 10 Vuser to 2000 Vuser) since last 3 days but the results are not good and not consistent at all ... Later in the Wednesday evening, we ran two more cycles of testing. We attempted two cycles at 2,000 Vusers. Neither was successful," he wrote.

Chao replied to that message, writing near the bottom, “I DO NOT WANT A REPEAT OF WHAT HAPPENED NEAR THE END OF DECEMBER 2005 WHERE MEDICARE.GOV HAD A MELTDOWN (THIS IS TO GET YOUR ATTENTION IF I DIDN’T HAVE IT ALREADY).”

Chao was referring to the problematic launch of the George W. Bush administration's Medicare prescription-drug program.

The emails, which are partially redacted, set as a goal making the website stable with a minimum load of 10,000 users at a time — although in Chao's Sept. 26 email he notes that they expect 50,000 users to be using the site concurrently.

According to Reuters, however, as many as 250,000 people visited the site on the day it launched.

On Sept. 29, two days before HealthCare.gov launched, Todd Park, the government's chief technology officer, emailed Chao asking what would happen once the website breached the maximum number of users it could handle.

"Is there a gradual degradation of response time for users? Rapid degradation? Immediate crashing?" Park writes. In the next line, he signs off with a positive note: "Massive kudos again for the incredible progress the team is making!"

'Rolled the dice'

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Click here for Al Jazeera's extensive coverage.

The flubbed HealthCare.gov rollout has been deeply embarrassing for the administration.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz told Reuters the "cherry-picked" emails did not reveal anything new.

"To the extent that CMS had identified capacity issues, we of course sought assurances that they were getting addressed," he said. "But, as is well known, nobody anticipated the severity of the problems we experienced once the site launched."

In a statement, a CMS spokeswoman said the agency previously admitted it underestimated the volume of users who would try to log onto the system at the same time, according to Reuters.

"It is important to remember that these emails are one piece of a number of ongoing discussions up to the launch of HealthCare.gov on October 1," the statement said.

In a press release on the committee's website, the House panel chairman slammed the Obama administration’s decision to launch the website amid the technical problems outlined in the emails.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., stated, "The administration rolled the dice, and Americans are left to struggle with the broken website and the president's broken promises. The frenzied lead-up to Oct. 1, coupled with the inadequate testing and numerous systems failures, reveal an administration that was not up to the job despite over three years to prepare.”

Obama has said that he was unaware of the glitches the site faced and that he would not have launched it if he had been aware of the extent of its technical problems.

Another document disclosed by the committee on Tuesday, however, showed that Obama was alerted as early as March that the website had not undergone enough end-to-end testing and that the program's "significant dependency" on contractors was problematic.

As a result of the website's technical problems, on Oct. 22 Obama pushed back the deadline for uninsured Americans to sign up for health insurance or else face a fine, from Feb. 15 to March 31 .

The Obama administration revealed on Nov. 13 that fewer than 27,000 people had signed up for private health insurance last month in the 36 states relying on the federal website.

States running their own enrollment systems — including California, which has had over 35,000 people enroll — fared better, signing up more than 79,000 from Oct. 1 through Nov. 2, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The administration has promised that the problems with HealthCare.gov will be ironed out by the end of November. Though the website is still plagued by IT difficulties, a CMS spokeswoman told reporters Monday that 90 percent of users who had had trouble with the website succeeded in creating an account on their second attempt.

With Reuters

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