Massachusetts Health-Care Site Performs Worse than Feds' in Test

Despite a jump start of seven years, one expert says Massachusetts Health Connector site is less optimized than the federal portal, not to mention "slow" and "clunky."

by Chris Cassidy, Boston Herald / November 18, 2013

There's a health insurance website that performs worse than even the notoriously disastrous federal Obamacare site, a top software expert tells the Herald -- it's Massachusetts' own $69 million Health Connector site, which is bogged down with unnecessarily large files, operates at slower speeds, and has other major flaws that are keeping Bay State users from getting the policies the law requires.

"It's even less optimized than the federal website. It was slow. It was clunky," said Bill Curtis, chief scientist for CAST Software, a nationally recognized expert who examined the site at the Herald's request along with his own technician.

"At one point, he couldn't get on. He got a maintenance in progress, and it wasn't clear what was happening."

Curtis looked at more than 100 pages of work change orders, while his technician pored over the website's code.

They found that elements, such as large numbers of complicated JavaScript code that power certain functions of the site, are all downloaded when the user first logs on, even if they aren't needed.

"In most cases, unless you're going to do it, why download it?" Curtis said. "It looks like they're trying to get you prepared for all the things you might do."

Other items, such as high-resolution photos, are unnecessarily large. All of which is slowing down the speed of the website, limiting the number of users who can sign up for health insurance, and locking others out.

"If you're a professional developer of websites, it's pretty basic," Curtis said. "You don't see Amazon or Google making those mistakes. They know they have to optimize or it'll just crash."

The Herald has reported that the state's glitch-plagued site has only successfully enrolled fewer than 1,000 applicants as of last week, out of an estimated pool of more than 150,000 people whose policies are being canceled.

CGI Group, the company that built both HealthCare .gov and the Massachusetts website, declined to comment on Curtis' report.

Health Connector spokesman Jason Lefferts wrote that creating the site was "an incredibly large, complex and challenging goal." But he expressed confidence it will be fully functional, and said there have been no security breaches so far.

Curtis did praise the state system for being slightly more secure than the federal site, though he said it is by no means hacker-proof.

After analyzing the more than $3 million in work change orders the state filed to modify the site, Curtis found a wide variety of issues. The state spent about $355,000 on hardware upgrades that expanded the capacity of the website in the months leading up to the Oct. 1 launch.

Nearly $2 million was spent on adding more online forms and notices to the website, including some in Spanish, largely to comply with last-minute changes handed down by the feds, Curtis said. But in some cases, he said, it's unclear whether state officials misinterpreted federal guidelines, or just wanted to add more functions to the site.

"The majority of the money is on these notices and forms that had to be added," Curtis said. "It looks like they originally underscoped it. They were guessing at what it takes."

Lefferts responded: "Change orders are very common in large technology projects. The CGI change orders are for enhanced Web hosting services, including more hardware to support additional users and Web pages to comply with updated ACA eligibility rules that have evolved during this process."

(c) 2013 McClatchy News Service