The Health Care Website Is Not Like Facebook

Comparing the two platforms, as one congressman did Thursday morning, doesn’t quite work.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Oct. 24, 2013, 12:08 p.m.

When ques­tion­ing ex­ec­ut­ives of the con­tract­or be­hind the prob­lem-plagued health care web­site dur­ing a House hear­ing Thursday, Rep. Steve Scal­ise brought up a pop­u­lar, user-friendly site for com­par­is­on.

“It’s been re­por­ted over $500 mil­lion of tax­pay­er money [was] spent to build this web­site, more money, by the way, than it cost to build Face­book,” the Re­pub­lic­an from Louisi­ana said, cit­ing a Di­git­al Trends piece that re­por­ted the so­cial net­work sur­passed $500 mil­lion in spend­ing costs six years in­to its ex­ist­ence. “Face­book gets 700 mil­lion users a day. Sev­en hun­dred people use that — mil­lion people use that site every day, and it works.”

The thing is, Health­ isn’t any­thing like Face­book. Nev­er mind that the two serve very dif­fer­ent pur­poses — the former to sign up un­in­sured Amer­ic­ans for health plans, the lat­ter to fuel your fear of miss­ing out. A lot more goes in­to the health care site than in­to Face­book, in­clud­ing 10 times as many lines of code, as this graph­ic by Or­ange, Cal­if.-based web de­veloper Alex Marchant shows. The size of the fed­er­al web­site’s code base, 500 mil­lion lines, sur­passes that of Face­book, Win­dows XP, Linux, and Google Chrome.

(Cour­tesy of Alex Marchant)

The web­site must com­mu­nic­ate with a host of dif­fer­ent data­bases. It links up with a num­ber of fed­er­al agen­cies, in­clud­ing Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, the So­cial Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the Treas­ury De­part­ment. It in­ter­acts with state-run on­line health ex­changes. And it con­nects with out­side health in­sur­ance com­pan­ies. All that com­mu­nic­a­tion, which re­quires a great deal of code to build and carry out, can over­whelm the en­tire sys­tem. “The more you have to ask an­oth­er data­base for in­form­a­tion, the more it can get over­whelmed,” com­puter sci­ent­ist Jonath­an Wu told Re­u­ters earli­er this month.

While Face­book hosts vari­ous apps and games, it’s ul­ti­mately a single ap­plic­a­tion, as Wired ex­plains, not even an op­er­at­ing sys­tem, such as Win­dows. When the site launched in 2004, it only wel­comed a few hun­dred users, not the mil­lions that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion en­cour­aged to sign up, all at the same time. Over time, the so­cial net­work ex­pan­ded its plat­form to ac­com­mod­ate a grow­ing num­ber of users. The health care web­site, it ap­pears, is build­ing in re­verse. In the days and weeks aheads, the lines of code will only get longer.

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