Why Won't the Exchanges Load?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I was going to write a review of the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges this afternoon -- go through the process of shopping, and then tell you which exchanges were good, which were bad and so forth. Unfortunately, I couldn't actually get into most of the exchanges; they wouldn't load. Or they barfed* at creating a login. Massachusetts let me get almost all the way through, then abruptly melted down when I asked it to show me policies that I might be interested in. (It did let me browse for policies that hadn't been narrowed down by its nifty-looking, but nonfunctional, wizard.)

So instead I'm going to explore another question: Why aren't the exchanges loading properly?

Here's Jonathan Chait 's theory via Twitter:

Loving @philipaklein's chronicling of higher-than-anticipated pent-up consumer demand for Obamacare.

This was in response to a weary, sighing tweet from Phil Klein of the Washington Examiner about the two-plus hours he'd already spent waiting for Covered California to load.

(Congrats to Phil on great tenacity, by the way; I gave up after an hour.)

This theory is certainly plausible. The exchanges are reportedly getting much more traffic than they expected. To be sure, "We're getting much more traffic than we expected" is the standard excuse when your new IT project doesn't work. But I find this pretty believable. Reports from New York's exchange site said that it had gotten 2 million visitors in its first two hours; I assume they weren't lying about that. I also assume that this wasn't the amount of traffic they were expecting.

On the other hand, that amount of traffic does tend to undercut the theory that this is all huge, pent-up demand for health insurance. New York state's population is 19.5 million, and according to Kaiser, 11.9 percent of that population is uninsured ... which is to say, 2.3 million people. If you believe Chait's theory, 87 percent of New York's uninsured population was on the exchange site within two hours of its opening. That seems ... very, very unlikely. No one was working? Asleep? On vacation? Otherwise away from a computer?

I'm guessing that a lot of the traffic was coming, not from pent-up demand, but from curious onlookers who wanted to see how the thing worked. Washington reported that 1,500 people had created exchange accounts in the first 90 minutes of the site's existence. I'd be willing to bet that at least 10 percent to 20 percent of those accounts were created by journalists curious about the exchange, not people who are looking to buy insurance on Jan. 1 -- including me, though I'm also a potential customer of the exchange.

D.C. doesn't just have a huge number of journalists; it also has a huge number of health policy wonks. And insurance industry lobbyists. And liberals who care passionately about health-care policy despite working in some other field. Few of these are uninsured people desperate for coverage; they're people with an intellectual interest in the program.

This is not to say, by the way, that Obamacare won't have lots and lots of customers. But I'm skeptical that all of them showed up at 8 a.m. this morning.

* Way back in the dark ages, when I was an IT consultant, "barf" was the technical term for a server that refused to do some simple task.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net