MSNBC’s Chris Jansing brought software expert Luke Chung onto Thursday’s Jansing & Co. to analyze the federal government’s troubled healthcare.gov website. Chung, the founder and president of software and database programming company FMS, served up a scathing indictment of the website that left Jansing reeling at certain points during the interview. [See video below the break. MP3 audio here.]
Jansing started by asking how complicated it was to get healthcare.gov up and running. Chung was very frank with her: “I don't know why they made it so complicated. This really shouldn't be that difficult.” Jansing fumbled around, talking about other countries and states that have launched similar programs before playing administration advocate:
"[B]ut is it a little bit like comparing apples and oranges because the number of people involved in this and the number of states is so big and so much bigger than had been anticipated?"
Chung called that an “excuse” and said that his experience on the website, as an informed shopper, was awful. He added, “It is just an awful website built by people who really are specializing in getting government contracts and not necessarily delivering technical expertise.”
Jansing then started grasping at straws. As the camera zoomed in on her computer screen, she explained that earlier that morning, she had been unable to access the page that lists plans in her area, but now that page was coming up fine. That glimmer of hope led her to ask this question: “If this should have been simple in the first place, could it be simple to fix because already, just from my limited experience, this little portion of it seems to have gotten better.”
Later, Chung eviscerated CGI, the IT company hired by the government to develop healthcare.gov: “This was built, I think, by people who were never paid before to create software. I think they just got out of school or something. You know, these government contractors, they win these contracts and then they're incentivized to deliver the cheapest people possible to meet the minimum requirements.”
Chung bluntly put the website problems in perspective: “I mean, this is not rocket science. We're not curing cancer, we're not providing any health care, we’re not even providing health insurance. We're filling out a paper form. Not that hard.”
Jansing took that as an opportunity to shift focus onto the complexities of private-sector health insurance: “Well, but it is confusing. I mean, as someone who has tried to figure out the health care system, as somebody who has health care... the level of frustration that I had in the private marketplace was incredibly high.”
Chung actually agreed with that: “As a small business owner who’s had to buy insurance, I'm not saying the current system is good. So that's why I was on the healthcare.gov site. I wanted alternatives. I wanted options.”
Having gotten Chung to stop slamming healthcare.gov and start criticizing the private sector instead, Jansing’s mission as an MSNBC anchor was accomplished. She ended the interview right there.
Below is a transcript of the full interview:
CHRIS JANSING: I want to bring in Luke Chung, president and founder of FMS, that's a software and database programming company. Good to see you. Good morning.
LUKE CHUNG: Thank you very much for having me, Chris.
JANSING: And I should let people know that you actually met with staffers on the hill, staff members of the congressmen on this actual committee. Give us just a sense, sort of put in perspective, how big a launch was this? I mean, how complicated was this to get up and running?
CHUNG: I don't know why they made it so complicated. This really shouldn't be that difficult. This is the automation of a paper form onto a website and then it's supposed to do some look-ups to calculate subsidies. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't provide health care. It doesn't even provide insurance. It's applying for something.
JANSING: Well, there is precedent, obviously. There are other countries who have done this kind of thing. I think France, Netherlands, Great Britain and of course the state exchanges have been working pretty well. I mean, California being the biggest of them and that seems to have been going pretty smoothly, but is it a little bit like comparing apples and oranges because the number of people involved in this and the number of states is so big and so much bigger than had been anticipated?
CHUNG: That seems like an excuse that people are raising. When I first experienced it on October 1, I went on as a consumer. I wanted to check out price quotes for insurance for my family. I have to buy insurance for my staff and my small business, and my experience was so awful. I could tell as a database web expert that this was not going to work for one user, much less lots of users on it. It is just an awful website built by people who really are specializing in getting government contracts and not necessarily delivering technical expertise.
JANSING: To give you one example of what happened, and we can show you when you go to healthcare.gov. This morning, we went to the place where it says, ‘see plans and prices in your area’ and there’s a little thing that says, ‘see plans now.’ This morning it wasn't working, but now it comes up and it actually says that you can start filling out the form and show the prices, although not the lower cost you may qualify for based on household size and income, but at least it gives you sort of a starting point. If this should have been simple in the first place, could it be simple to fix because already, just from my limited experience, this little portion of it seems to have gotten better.
CHUNG: Well, they’ve implemented that and that really should be the first thing that this application has, which is a very simple way to get an unsubsidized, accurate quote. Without having to provide any personal information like Social Security number or birth date and things like that. That should be a slam dunk, no-brainer and the most critical part of that application needs to be a comparison matrix that shows all the different plans in some sort of matrix like you’re buying a TV at Best Buy or something like that. All the different features, see if your doctor's on the plan or not, and then a button to buy it, in which case you never need to touch the government system again because you’re not getting a subsidy, or something to estimate your subsidy. Very simple.
JANSING: Yeah, the subsidy is important, though, isn’t it, because a lot of the people who are uninsured right now are people of very low income and a number may come up that is inflated in the sense of it doesn't yet reflect the subsidy, and what the government didn’t want them to do was say, what? Eight hundred dollars a month? When in fact with the subsidy, it could be just a fraction of that.
CHUNG: Well, I think that’s where they were misguided. I think a lot of people, especially people with pre-existing conditions, are paying much higher prices anyway. So even the unsubsidized price would be a real benefit to them. And then the other part is it's really patronizing to suggest that people don't understand what a retail price is, or a manufactured, suggested retail price is, versus the discount price. People get that. We just need to get people through the system as quickly as possible so they can start understanding what their options are. Because before they even buy, they need to know which plan they want, what deductions to take, all the different features for all of these plans and none of that has been shown yet.
JANSING: One expert told The New York Times that up to 5 million lines of software code may need to be re-written to completely fix the website. I wonder if you agree with that, because what we just heard from Cheryl Campbell, the senior VP of CGI, the software company, is that it’s going to be fixed, and it’s going to be fixed in time for people to meet the deadline.
CHUNG: You know, I don't know what CGI brings to the table. Whatever management team was in place that launched on October 1 thought that they delivered a quality product, so I don't see how the same management team can be trusted to come up with a solution because clearly, they don't understand what a enterprise, national rollout-quality product should be. They're not even close.
JANSING: Obviously, there’s – and there always is – some politics involved in this hearing, but if you were asking the questions, what would you want to know?
CHUNG (laughing): You know, this thing is such a mess. It was developed poorly. It looks like it wasn't even tested, but overall, even if they built it right, the design was wrong and design is tied to management. I mean, I would ask some basic questions on, why didn’t you streamline this like a e-commerce site? Why are you asking personal information when you don’t need it? You don’t need that information until somebody actually applies. Why did you set it up so that it doesn’t scale properly when you add more people? They deliberately designed bottlenecks into the system. That clearly shows, in my book, that it was the first time somebody had ever experienced creating a database application.
JANSING: It's that limited in its sophistication?
CHUNG: Absolutely. This was built, I think, by people who were never paid before to create software. I think they just got out of school or something. You know, these government contractors, they win these contracts and then they're incentivized to deliver the cheapest people possible to meet the minimum requirements.
JANSING: She said they have developed other web sites before and that's something that will be looked at. But you have been tracking this, I know you’ve been going on, you know, day after day. Is it getting better?
CHUNG: They’ve tweaked a couple of things there. You showed the site that is supposed to give you the unsubsidized price and that’s still just not done right to make a decision. See, I don't have a problem with people not signing up right now. If I were going to sign up, I wouldn’t sign up right now because the due date isn't until December.
JANSING: So you’d wait, and then they’ll get some of these kinks worked out and it will be a much faster process. At least that's the hope.
CHUNG: Hopefully. I mean, this is not that hard. This is filling out a paper form. Now the president’s telling people to call an 800 number to do it. I mean, this is not rocket science. We're not curing cancer, we're not providing any health care, we’re not even providing health insurance. We're filling out a paper form. Not that hard.
JANSING: Well, but it is confusing. I mean, as someone who has tried to figure out the health care system, as somebody who has health care, anyone who sits around my desk at work will tell you that the level of frustration that I had in the private marketplace was incredibly high.
CHUNG: No question about that. As a small business owner who’s had to buy insurance, I'm not saying the current system is good. So that's why I was on the healthcare.gov site. I wanted alternatives. I wanted options. I don't even know if my current health care plan for my employees is a platinum, gold, silver or bronze level, right? I mean, it's very opaque. So having health care.gov add transparency to the insurance industry is great. That's wonderful.
JANSING: Luke Chung, it is a pleasure to have you on the program. Come back and maybe in a few weeks we'll see how they're doing. Thanks so much.