I just clicked on the "Start Here" button on California's brand spanking health exchange portal, Covered California and went absolutely nowhere. The web page wouldn't load, and I wasn't even getting the pleasure of an error message to tell me why.
Judging by reports coming in from all over the United States, a great many Americans are having similar experiences as they try to explore the new possibilities of the Affordable Care Act. We have forgotten -- or never learned -- the first law of complicated software products. Never try to upgrade the second something new becomes available; you're only asking for frustration as you compete for bandwidth with every other eager beaver.
In this case, the operating system in question is Obamacare. At this point, we don't know whether the glitches that are preventing people from New York to California from getting through to the newly opened healthcare exchanges are a result of governmental technical incompetence or huge overwhelming demand, or some combination of both. But we do know that the experience is all too familiar -- it happened just two weeks ago when an entire nation of Apple users attempted to upgrade to iOS 7 simultaneously.
Indeed, reports Matthew Yglesias at Slate, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asked healthcare reporters on Monday to cut the government a break:
"We’re building a complicated piece of technology," Sebelius observed, "and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple."
Of course, as Yglesias points out, Apple has a long track record of successfully rolling out complex hardware and software products with stunning commercial success. The U.S. government? Not so much.
But let's just suppose that overwhelming demand is actually swamping government servers. If that's true, there's a fighting chance that the United States has just passed a hugely important economic threshold. To borrow a slogan from everybody's favorite cheap airline -- You are now free to quit your job and move around the country."
ComputerWorld is reporting that "Obamacare could fuel a tech-startup boom."
The arrival of Obamacare may make it easier for some employees to quit their full-time jobs to launch tech start-ups, work as a freelance consultant or pursue some other solo career path....
Donna Harris, the co-founder of the 1776 incubation platform in Washington, believes the healthcare law will encourage more start-ups.
"You have to know that there are millions of Americans who might be fantastic and highly successful entrepreneurs who are not pursuing that path because of how healthcare is structured," said Harris. The healthcare law "will at least provide these people the option to get into the entrepreneurship game," she said.
The new freedom extends far beyond the tech sector. Anyone who has felt trapped in their current job because they simply couldn't afford to risk not having health care coverage for themselves or their family now has new, liberating options. When I was regularly writing about the impact of globalization on the the American workforce, I banged this drum every week: If you want to help Americans compete with cheap foreign labor, give them affordable healthcare. Give them the freedom to take risks, give them a backstop of security. It's been an enduring shame -- not to mention a clear case of shooting oneself in both feet -- to be the only wealthy nation in the world that doesn't provide subsidized healthcare.
So I'm not actually disappointed that it's been tough to get through to Covered California. I'm heartened. It strongly suggests that there is huge pent up demand for a better system. Which, of course, explains why Republicans are fighting so hard to stop Obamacare. Because if it works, there's no going back.
Oh, and hey, I just got through to the site. It's loading slowly, but it's there.
UPDATE: Heavy demand for Obamacare is confirmed.