exchange

Most Obamacare exchanges performed well in opening days

Despite anecdotal reports of glitches with the launch this week of health insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act, most of the sites did well, according to one performance index.

“For the most part, the websites performed fairly well and were fairly reliable,” said Aaron Rudger, marketing manager for Keynote Systems, which measures performance of websites. Most of the 17 state exchanges as well as the federal exchange were under the three-second benchmark considered the industry standard for loading an initial Web page.

Two of the sites had significant issues, with Vermont’s  – the slowest – taking more than eight seconds do load. Studies have shown that 40 percent of users will abandon a page if it takes more than three seconds to load. Rhode Island’s site returned error messages for two hours during the 45-hour period monitored, Rudger said. This apparently was caused by a piece of third-party content that was not properly integrated into the site.

The top performing exchanges were Connecticut’s, with an average loading time of 1.6 seconds, and the federal site, Healthcare.gov, which loaded in just over 1.9 seconds, Rudger said.

The exchanges are online shopping sites for health care insurance established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Seventeen states are operating their own sites, and the federal site provides services for the rest. The subject of intense partisan wrangling, the sites came under scrutiny when they went into operation Oct. 1, the same day a partial shutdown of the federal government began.

In the opening hours, several sites, including those in New York, Maryland and Kentucky, were overwhelmed by high volumes of traffic. But by the time Keynote began its monitoring at 6 p.m. EDT Oct. 1, most problems seemed to have been worked out. Keynote benchmarks the performance of home pages from 10 major U.S. metro areas over several major ISP backbones. The company monitored performance for the exchanges through 3 p.m. EDT Oct. 3. 

Rudger said the federal shutdown did not appear to have an impact on the sites.

The Keynote figures offer an admittedly limited assessment of performance, measuring only the time required to load the home page of each site, “the front door experience.” It did not measure back-end functionality of searching for, comparing and applying for health insurance policies.

Response time on websites typically varies with usage patterns over the course of a day, slowing some during the business day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A number of state exchange sites apparently were taken down for maintenance and to address problems during the early morning hours of Oct. 2 and 3, Rudger said.

Differences in performance were due in part to the “baggage” each site had to deal with, he said. The New York Health Benefit Exchange site, for instance, is also the old N.Y. State of Health site and comes with all the legacy issues of an old site. The federal Healthcare.gov site, on the other hand, is all new and “very nicely designed,” Rudger said. It uses responsive-design techniques to provide optimized display on phones and tablets as well as desktops and laptops. “You’re publishing just one site, but it renders nicely on a mobile screen.”

Problems are to be expected on any significant online roll-out, Rudger said. “It’s difficult for any agency to pull together a large, complex Web application like this, and at the end of the day you have to test it.”

Ideally, testing will be done in a production environment as well as a testbed to validate that the sites, which often incorporate third-party services, are ready for business.

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