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Daily Briefing Blog

Five goofy glitches in the Obamacare exchanges

Dan Diamond, Managing Editor

It's been impossible to write about the Obamacare exchange websites this week without acknowledging their many glitches. And for the most part, those errors have been pretty standard—pages or forms that stalled out after minutes, or refused to load in the first place.  

But a few of the glitches were especially odd or unusual—enough that I stopped and took screenshots, or borrowed .gifs from others who did. And with apologies to BuzzFeed (which is no doubt planning a similar, wonky listicle), here are five of the goofiest errors.

1. Obamacare becomes self-aware

When healthcare.gov first went live at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, and began stalling almost immediately, users were repeatedly routed to this page. Note the capitalization. 

Within hours, the vague, impersonal message from "The System" was quickly replaced by a more anodyne page that better explained to users why the site was stalling, and also better followed the rules of capitalization.

But that page wasn't long for the Web world either, as healthcare.gov switched over to yet another interstitial (below) that's still in service.

The iterations of error pages make increasingly more sense; they further incorporate the site's design and grow even more congenial. (Important when dealing with grumpy, frustrated browsers.) 

But we'll always remember those heady early minutes of healthcare.gov, when officials flipped a switch and The System—seemingly like Skynet and HAL before it—came to life

2. What does 'success' look like? Website draws a blank

Sam Richardson, a professor at the University of Texas, posted the screenshot below to Twitter; it was the page that he saw after signing into his state's exchange with his username and password, Richardson told me.

The totally blank page's title? "success URL."

3. Empty attempt at security

Many, many folks commented on this error, but that doesn't make it any less odd: When trying to create an account on the federal exchanges, users were prompted to fill out this page of security questions ... but the questions repeatedly came up as empty boxes.

As a result, users generally didn't know whether they were seeing another glitch, or if they were being invited to write their own security questions. (They weren't; it was a CMS error.)

Don't judge the exchanges' fate too soon: Join us for a conversation on November 15 as our experts perform a pulse check on Obamacare.

"I tried putting random words in the boxes and hit 'enter;'" Megan McArdle writes at Bloomberg, but "that brought me to a screen announcing that an account couldn’t be created at this time."

(And it's disappointing that the security questions didn't show up; Politico's Joanne Kenen notes that the sites' IT architects came up with a memorable mix of protections. The federal exchange is supposed to ask about your grandmother's nickname or favorite childhood toy, while state exchanges wonder about your first kiss, dream colleges, and the band poster that was on your wall as a teenager.

"Who knew [Obamacare] has a sense of humor?" Kenen marvels.)

4. Verification that needs to be verified

Brad DeLong, a professor at the University of California, relays his experience trying to shop for coverage on Thursday morning. And he couldn't convince the website "that I am me," DeLong writes, noting that he got stopped by this verification question:

The correct answer is indeed "NONE OF THE ABOVE"; DeLong hasn't had a pet named Catori, Xerxes, Equinox, or Nessus, let alone purchased coverage for any of them.

"I guess that if I want health insurance through [healthcare.gov]," DeLong ruefully writes, "I am going to have to go back through my VISA card records before the death of our dog Misty in April 2012 searching for whatever veterinary bill from the previous eight months healthcare.gov thinks is 'a purchase of insurance'…"

5. Failure to launch

Within minutes of the exchanges going live on Tuesday, I clicked over to CoverOregon.com—and was immediately redirected to coprod.dedodev.com, a near-empty site with just a few lines of code. And the parent site, dedodev.com, was hosting a person's Web journal and had nothing to do with health care.

It was so surprising, and such a sudden failure, that my first instinct was that an exchange site had been hacked. (Especially because some online critics of the law had promised to do just that.) But after some quick sleuthing, it became clear that the owner of dedodev.com was a programmer, and one who appeared to be based in Oregon.

The goof didn't last too long; within minutes, CoverOregon.com was redirecting where it should, and I didn't think to take a screenshot. Still, having the code for a government exchange website visibly get routed through a developer's personal website was unusual enough to raise a few eyebrows. To say nothing of raising the question: With months to prepare for launch day, how did such an obvious goof slip through?


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