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Bug Government Oracle United States

How Much Is Oracle To Blame For Healthcare IT Woes? 275 275

Nerval's Lobster writes "The state of Oregon blames Oracle for the failures of its online health exchange. The health-insurance site still doesn't fully work as intended, with many customers forced to download and fill out paper applications rather than sign up online; Oracle has reportedly informed the state that it will sort out the bulk of technical issues by December 16, a day after those paper applications are due. 'It is the most maddening and frustrating position to be in, absolutely,' Liz Baxter, chairwoman of the board for the online exchange, told NPR. 'We have spent a lot of money to get something done—to get it done well—to serve the people in our state, and it is maddening that we can't seem to get over this last hump.' Oregon state officials insist that, despite payments of $43 million, Oracle missed multiple deadlines in the months leading up to the health exchange's bungled launch." (Read more, below.)
"This isn't the first time Oracle's name has circulated in conjunction with the Affordable Care Act's digital drama. In November, USA Today published a piece suggesting that 'communication breakdowns' with Oracle Identity Manager had led to 'bottlenecks' in the registration process for, the federal online health exchange, which in turn prevented some users from signing up for healthcare. But a single contractor doesn't lie at the root of the federal's spectacular debacle: despite months of preparations, large sections of the site remained unfinished on launch day, and the completed parts crashed as soon as users began entering the site. According to multiple sources, the Medicare agency tasked with overseeing the project failed to adequately test, much less integrate, the site's complex elements ahead of launch day. Even if it didn't hold that much responsibility for the federal Website's issues, though, Oracle could find itself the target of much more blame in the Oregon case, where it was reportedly the sole contractor and overseer."
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How Much Is Oracle To Blame For Healthcare IT Woes?

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  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:38PM (#45584889)

    Oracle services may at times make a hash of things.

    But we are too quick to blame Oracle and the developer of for problems that come down to what is simply, a bad and incomplete spec that is impossible to build a good system against.

    Indeed the "re-launch" of recently only works so much better because they scrapped the requirement that an application had to be completed in order for you to see prices (so you would not see the real price). The application process still is deeply flawed; but you can at least see raw static data now...

    So don't place too much blame on Oracle for not succeeding at a Herculean task.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:42PM (#45584955)

    In any other context "can't deliver on time" means "you're fired and we're suing for breach of contract." In the software solutions market it means "we're going to ride your sunk cost fallacy into the ground, please send us more money."

  • by HBI (604924) <.kparadine. .at.> on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:45PM (#45584991) Journal

    When the bus is barreling towards you, throw them under it first!

  • No, it's both (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SuperKendall (25149) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:46PM (#45585017)

    I am talking about both because both face the same issues. They are trying to build a website against a spec that was never complete until very late, and even now had fundamental problems in implementation because of what they are trying to do.

  • by i kan reed (749298) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:46PM (#45585019) Homepage Journal

    Outsourcing and privatization of coding is a disaster waiting to happen for any company or government of sufficient size. When you lack the wherewithal in your own organization to make the project you're planning, you also lack the wherewithal to judge how much time/money/manpower it would take someone else.

    That in-and-of-itself is a problem, but it also, as you noted, injects a middle-man whose biggest incentive is to keep on earning money past the deadline for the project, not finishing it. When you hire your own coders, their biggest concerns tend to be keeping a manageable workload for themselves and keeping their jobs. Humans are (usually) much more reliable than corporations.

    The so-called cost savings of outsourcing projects are a lie too, but that's another rant.

  • by FacePlant (19134) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:48PM (#45585039)

    > But we are too quick to blame Oracle and the developer of for problems that come down to what is simply, a bad and incomplete spec that is impossible to build a good system against.

    No. All specs are incomplete or bad.

    The Waterfall model that everybody seems to still love,in which you assume a spec is complete before you begin work, was discredited in the very paper that named it. Fifty years of waterfall model system develop has borne that out time and time again.

    Part of delivering a working figuring out where the specs are flawed, and changing them so that the delivered system works for the users. otherwise it only works for the contracting officers and the lawyers who handle the ensuing lawsuits.

  • by trybywrench (584843) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:50PM (#45585065)
    My team has been talking about and all the related woes for a while. Pretty much we're all in agreement that we should thank the baby jeebus every day it's not our project haha. Seriously though, for something this complex, if the team grows to over about 15 people it's doomed. And that's just YOUR side, I have a lot of experience interfacing to insurance providers' systems. Half the time the provider you're trying to connect to is broken and doesn't work per their API docs at a basic level let alone have proper capacity let alone have any sense of normal connectivity. I can't even imagine trying to talk to something as huge as the IRS. I bet it's 6 months before you can get a simple spelling fix on an API method pushed out to production.
  • by scamper_22 (1073470) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @12:52PM (#45585119)

    Everything seems to swing. But one thing is certain, always follow the money.

    This whole 'contracting' affair on both the public and private sector does not produce the highest quality products. Why should it? None of the incentives are there.

    The contracting company doesn't want to build something that works without flaws for a minimal profit. They want to have continuing profits. This is not unique to big corporations. Just try dealing with any contractor or mechanic. Sure if you *know* them, you can deal with them honestly somewhat. Or if you pay them enough... and they can cost a lot, you can get an honest deal.

    At best, you hope they do a good job and that means you build a good relationship, and that means more business in the future. But of course, when this comes to government contracts, what that natural process means is that it gets called corruption.

    On the other hand, you can have the builder operate it. There's some incentive there for them to do a good job as they get a cut of continuing operations. I think there is some hope that the 'cloud' will actually provide for better overall software. Although of course this results in vendor lockin and could potentially cause all kinds of other business problems.

    Or you could build it in house. Then of course you run the risk of an overstaffed bureaucracy and unionized government workers.

    There's no real easy solution. But I do think the dominant view has swayed too far towards contracting.

  • Re:No, it's both (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:07PM (#45585295)

    I keep hearing this, but it is hard to take it that seriously when other states' own exchanges are doing fine (so far).

    If the specs really were that bad then I would expect the majority to be a disaster but that doesn't seem to be the case (again, so far).

  • by strength_of_10_men (967050) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:20PM (#45585461)

    I would agree with you but from TFA:

    Oregon had an ambitious goal: to create a place where anyone, from Medicaid recipients and small-business owners to people in the individual market, could go to shop for insurance. "In hindsight — which is always wonderful — we made decisions that made our system much more complicated to build," Baxter says.

    Initially, Oracle promised it could get the job done.

    Yeah, it could have been a nightmare of a spec, but if Oracle promised it could be done, then I have a hard time cutting them any slack.

  • by mosb1000 (710161) <> on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:22PM (#45585475)

    The so-called cost savings of outsourcing projects are a lie too, but that's another rant.

    The key is only outsourcing part of the project, not the whole thing. If you are working alongside your contractor, you have a better idea of what they are doing and they have a better understanding of your needs. But if you hand over the entire project to a contractor, and you just try to oversee it, you are likely to run into communication problems which will definitely lead to unnecessary costs.

  • by gstoddart (321705) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:25PM (#45585523) Homepage

    I don't think any of the above examples are legally fraud.

    And you can bet that Oracle has lawyers ensuring they never actually meet the legal definition of fraud, and that the contracts have enough wiggle room to cover their asses.

    But, I can also tell you that it's entirely common for companies contracting for this kind of thing to start off with the full knowledge that they've not asked for enough money to cover everything and get you a working system -- instead they rely on having to do changes and enhancements on a time and materials basis. And then they make a small fortune in quibbling over every little change.

    I've seen several of these kinds of things where the contractors essentially knew there was no way to deliver the system on-time and on-budget. They just seem to build in the fact that once the client realizes it, the sunk cost is high enough they get to have a gravy train for some time to come.

    It's not fraud, per se, but it's carefully managing the terms of your engagement with the knowledge the customer will end having to pay more and not really have much of a choice.

    Sadly, it almost seems to be standard practice in the industry.

  • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:26PM (#45585533) Homepage

    Allow me to rephrase:

    After a project that I was biased against [1] failed, my bias was confirmed and I knew that my preferred solution would be much better.

    I have a half-baked plan already, so surely the real thing can't be much more difficult.

    Now I see evidence that contradicts my bias, so I'm completely surprised.

    [1]: Why is a project I know little about using a database I know little about?

    One of MarkLogic's strong points is that it uses that "example schema from a private insurance firm" as its starting point, keeping records arranged in the proper hierarchies for use in the healthcare industry. Yes, you could reproduce the constraints using another database, but why go to the extra work? Oh, right, there's that consistency point... but a quick search [] shows that MarkLogic is claiming ACID support [].

    So for a project in the healthcare sector is using a healthcare-oriented database. This doesn't seem to be a bad idea. The questionable part is how there are fewer MarkLogic experts than Oracle gurus, but that's not really a showstopper.

  • by mosb1000 (710161) <> on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:28PM (#45585551)

    The thing is they could get it fixed if the people writing the ACA knew what they were doing. First of all, you don't need to meet their API spec, they need to meet yours. Secondly, if they can't meet your spec, they can't offer a health insurance product. How hard is that? But legislators don't even know what an API is, so they wouldn't know a good spec from a cookbook. That's why government agencies often botch this kind of thing (and they aren't the only ones).

  • Re:What a joke (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:32PM (#45585595) Journal

    As much as I loathe guys like Mark Zuckerberg, I'll wager giving some of his script monkeys a few months to come up with a functional ACA website, and they'd probably do it, using largely open source tools to pull it off.

  • by minstrelmike (1602771) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:40PM (#45585733)

    ...Like you said, it isn't rocket-science. There isn't some dark magic involved in developing a schema.

    The dark magic is required when dealing with managers.
    The very first thing anybody tells me about their website is that they want to track users.
    That of course, is the very last thing you actually want to do to people who are merely browsing but trying to convince managers of that is impossible.
    And if you're a contractor, do you want the job or not?

  • Re:No, it's both (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Obfuscant (592200) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:51PM (#45585877)

    I think Oregon tried to be much more ambitious than other state exchanges,

    That would be a fine argument if what failed was ambitious stuff. What wasn't working from day 1 on Cover Oregon was the ability for individuals to find out what any plan would actually cost and then to actually sign up for a plan. Those are two very basic features of any e-commerce site. Could you imagine anyone trying to claim that Amazon was being "more ambitious than other sites" because they wanted to tell you how much an item costs and then let you actually buy it? I don't know about you, but when I see a website that says "We have the following products, call for pricing and ordering..." I go somewhere else because I know these people aren't serious about their web presence or sales.

    Yes, Oregon has some different requirements overall because of the existing state healthcare programs, but that should not stop someone from being able to get a price and say "I'll buy it".

  • Re:No, it's both (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Will.Woodhull (1038600) <> on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:51PM (#45585889) Homepage Journal

    And if Oracle was open and above board, it would have walked away from the contract very early, as soon as it was evident that the spec was incomplete and could not be implemented. That's what any reputable small business owner would do when faced with a similar problem. As soon as you realize you can't do the job, you quit. And start your legal guy on maximizing the smaller amount that is fairly due to you for the work that has been completed. There would be clauses in the contract to cover that.

    Oracle is at fault. Or rather, persons in power at Oracle are at fault.

  • by Voyager529 (1363959) <<moc.oohay> <ta> <925regayov>> on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @01:53PM (#45585903)

    But legislators don't even know what an API is, so they wouldn't know a good spec from a cookbook.

    Especially since they would both be called "To Serve Man".

  • Re:No, it's both (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @02:04PM (#45586091)

    And if Oracle was open and above board

    Well it wouldn't be Oracle then, would it?

  • Re:What a joke (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jedidiah (1196) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @02:06PM (#45586133) Homepage

    > Mostly functioning.

    Beats nothing.

    > And with security like a sieve.

    As if the Obamacare website that's designed to funnel personal data to Experian is any better...

  • by jedidiah (1196) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @02:21PM (#45586337) Homepage

    > Oracle is so maddingly fragile (through their stored procedures

    An entirely avoidable artificial and self-inflicted problem.

    People pay for commercial databases because the biggest free one still gets delivered with something as simple as foreign keys turned off.

    A commercial RDBMS might not be able to handle whatever Facebook is doing but supporting the ACA website should be no problem with 10 year old copies of Oracle, DB2 or even SQL Server.

  • by NatasRevol (731260) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @02:26PM (#45586417) Journal

    If you're seriously suggesting that California's government is better than Oregon's, then you need to get off the crack.

  • by mosb1000 (710161) <> on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @02:28PM (#45586443)

    That's true, but if your developer can't even make the schema, they were just going to fail anyway. At least this way you learn they're in over their heads before all the money is spent.

  • by rk (6314) on Tuesday December 03, 2013 @05:05PM (#45588449) Journal

    This. I'm a huge data model bigot. I believe that even if your code is dodgy, if your data model is good, you can overcome the dodgy code. If your data model is a clusterfuck, though, all the hero programming in the world isn't going to make it work right.

Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves. -- Lazarus Long