Obama's Trauma Team

How an unlikely group of high-tech wizards revived Obama's troubled HealthCare.gov website

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Photograph by Stephen Voss for TIME

(11 of 14)

As Dickerson marched his troops through the punch list in November, he added to the team, mostly with recruits he had worked with at Google. Jini Kim, a 32-year-old who had left Google to start her own health care data-analytics service, arrived on Nov. 21 and became the team's "Queen of Errors." Her job was to work with a group at a separate office near Dulles Airport in Virginia devoted to dealing with longer-term issues the site would face following the Nov. 30 deadline. The most important of these was scale: Would the site be able to handle the traffic a revived and working HealthCare.gov would, everyone hoped, generate?

One of the key issues involved in preparing for that surge was the error rate--the rate at which any click on the site generated a result that it was not supposed to, such as a time-out or the popping up of the wrong page. In October the error rate had been an astoundingly high 6%, meaning that even the lucky few who got on to the site invariably had something go wrong, because at 6%, just 15 or 16 clicks on the site would likely produce a problem.

With Thanksgiving falling on Nov. 28, what for most of the country was a long holiday weekend became five days of two-minute drills for the team, all aimed at keeping the President's promise of a website working for the "vast majority" of visitors by Sunday, Dec. 1. Dozens of items remained on the punch list. For example, people still couldn't go back a page on the website in certain situations, and the process for comparing competing insurance plans was still too slow. So the releases were pumped out even faster. At the same time, the engineers executed a major upgrade in the hardware powering the system, giving it more capacity and reliability. "You normally don't do hardware and software changes at the same time," says Zients. "Because if something breaks you don't know what the cause is. But we were in a position where we had to take chances."

The rest of the world remained skeptical. On Nov. 13, CMS issued its first report on monthly enrollments, covering the disastrous October rollout. Just 26,794 people had enrolled through the federal exchange over the entire month--90% fewer than what the Administration had been counting on. The night before, the Washington Post website ran a lead story headlined troubled HealthCare.gov unlikely to work fully by end of November. Citing "an official with knowledge of the project," the Post reported that "government workers and technical contractors racing to repair the Web site have concluded ... that the only way for large numbers of Americans to enroll in the health-care plans soon is by using other means so that the online system isn't overburdened."

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