Related link: http://www.medicare.gov/
Maybe you sat down to help grandma sign up for the new Medicare Prescription Drug plan this year? If you and gramps ended up staring at a HTTP 500 response code, you weren’t alone. The Medicare website, a mishmash of Microsoft ASP and ASP.NET pages, has been overwhelmed by activity, and, from most reports, is suffering from frequent outages. Read on…
Stories? Please share.
No Really, it’s broken…
Don’t believe me? Here’s an excerpt from the December 25th edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Coverage could lapse if timely choice not made”:
“Meanwhile, the Medicare drug plan Web site — www.medicare.gov — often freezes as trained volunteers start to help seniors, says C. Linda Barnhart, manager of senior resources and advocacy at Senior Connections/Capital Area Agency on Aging.”
The free health insurance counseling program Barnhart manages is still helping seniors figure out their top choices of drug plans offered in Virginia, but the volunteers are inundated with calls, she says. Each one takes 90 minutes to two hours or longer, if the Medicare site is inaccessible. Keep trying to access the Medicare site; eventually, it frees up, she says.
It failed…on TV…in November…
In fact, when Leslie Norwalk, Deputy Administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spoke to CSPAN on November 29th on Washington Journal, the segment included a live web demonstration of the web site enrollment process. Well, guess what, as luck would have it, the site errored out after the third or fourth step, and the CSPAN host quickly had to move on to other topics. (I happened to be watching this particular Washington Journal, and from what I can see there is no video archive of this particular show available for download). I remember watching as the screen switched to a view of a web browser, the host then set up the segment as an attempt to demonstrate how easy it was to sign up for the Part D drug plan online. Ms. Norwalk proceeded to describe the first step of the process of typing in a zipcode and selecting a prescription drug plan from the list of plans available in your specific area.
When she clicked to continue to the next step, the browser (presumably IE) displayed an error message one frequently encounters when an application server returns an internal server error or a HTTP 500 code. She continued to fumble with the system for a few seconds, and the host chose to quickly move on to another topic. In other words, they set up a segment about the ease of signing up through the web site, the web site failed, and they moved on to other important topics.
Summary of Facts
- Only 24 percent of seniors have ever used the Web. The poorest who would benefit the most are even less likely to have access to the appropriate technology
- The Medicare.gov enrollment application suffered a public failure on November 29th on CSPAN’s Morning Edition, and it clearly is something that has continued to experience failure for at least one month
- More recent news reports state that the Medicare site is frequently inaccessible. In fact, the independent agencies who advise seniors tell the Richmond Times-Dispatch of a site the “often freezes”.
An approaching deadline, a broken web site, and a (not so) hypothetical situation…
I know this issue isn’t a hot button O’Reilly topic, but try to take yourself away from Doom and iTunes for a moment to imagine the experience of a senior unlucky enough to be confronted with such a system.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a 70 year old, who would benefit from signing up for this new prescription drug plan. Let’s make this easy, you’ve already figured out which of the 60 plans being offered in your area will pay for the specific set of drugs you depend upon to lower your blood pressure and keep you alive. All you want to do is use this web site to sign up for the new prescription drug plan. Remember, if you fail to enroll, your prescription drug benefits will end on January 1st. Sure, you can sign up until May 15th without penalty, but you don’t want to risk missing even a day of your blood pressure medicine. You’ve already had to cut back on essentials because of rising energy and healthcare costs, so this plan is literally a life-saver. No more choosing between your medication or your utilities.
Even though your sight is failing because of Macular degeneration, you’ve decided to stay at your one bedroom house as long as possible despite your son’s constant protest. You enjoy being around memories of your young family and you couldn’t conceive of moving into a retirement home. You know there are people you can call to help you signup for this service, but how hard can it be. You watch your grandson effortlessly use his Apple to download music to use iPod, and your 6 year old grandchild is sending picture email to her mother.
You can (barely) make out text on the computer screen, but you only really use your old Pentium 266 to balance your checkbook. Your grandson keeps on trying to convince you to buy a new computer and logon to the internet so he can send you email, but you’ve heard too many horror stories about scam artists stealing money from people’s bank accounts. Plus, you don’t want to spend your days fumbling around with technology. As of yesterday, you are content to leave the internet to your grand kids. But, after talking to a friend who used the internet to sign-up for Part D, you’ve decided to unwrap that AOL CD they left in your mailbox yesterday.
After fumbling around with AOL, you’ve managed to get what you thought was a new machine to successfully dial a modem. One you sign on, you click on something that says web, and you squint to read the Medicare instructions. You open a console window and type “http://www.medicare.gov”, pressing enter, the machine responds with a “Bad Command or Filename”. Resolving not to call your son for help, you spend a halfhour trying to read the AOL instructions with your Video Eye, a contraption which uses a video camera to enlarge printed text onto a 20″ flat screen your son set up for you. Reading text on this unit is a task because the system can only enlarge a 3″ by 3″ section of printed text at any given time and you haven’t grown used to the experience of reading a book from a TV.
OK, you’ve found a picture of the icon that launches something called a “Web Browser”. After launching this and following the instructions to the letter, you’ve ended up on the Medicare website. Damn, more text to read! It takes you a good deal of time to read everything, type in your zipcode and get to part two. Now you have to again read an entire screen of text and select the plan you choose from advertisements you received from the privately administered drug plan providers. Click….and now you are staring at a highly technical error message that is somewhat beyond you. You call you son on the phone and walk him through the same steps you took (you’ve written them down because you are used to pen and paper). Your son assures you that you must’ve typed something in wrong, but as he approaches step 3, he encounters the same errors.
At this point in the story, you end up calling Senior Connections/Capital Area Agency on Aging, a group that has helped you navigate the confusing world of Medicare in the past. They promise to help you sign up for the plan you want, but when you tell them about the problems you were having with the Medicare website, they simply tell you to keep at it “Keep trying to access the Medicare site; eventually, it frees up”, she says.
I’m sure there are savvy seniors, and this hypothetical isn’t mean to insult anyone born before 1935, but, I’m also sure that there is a large majority of seniors who just don’t care to be bothered with HTTP, XML, ASP, JSP, or those damn silly iPods. To base a Medicare Prescription Drug plan for seniors on a web enrollment application is folly and to build one that doesn’t work properly under load is less folly than crime. I certainly hope that Congress gets around to extending the signup deadline and mandating oversight over technology implementation, and I don’t think anyone can be certain that there are seniors who will lose healthcare coverage because of bad implementation and arhitecture.