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Thursday, Oct 31 2013 11:00 PM

TERRY PHILLIPS: Fixing that Obamacare glitch: How I did it (and you can too)

It seems almost everyone has an opinion about what's wrong with the new health insurance marketplace. Rather than participating in that debate, I have found a relatively easy way to overcome at least one of the system's hidden online barriers -- at least here in California.

As soon as Obamacare opened for business, I went to the Covered California website (www.CoveredCA.com), our state's implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and set up an account. It was a bit time consuming, but far from the worst such process I have encountered. After about 20 minutes of filling out forms, I had a user name and a password. Unfortunately, that's when the fun ended and the grumbling began.

While trying to log on with my Google Chrome browser, everything ground to a halt. Then, a friend suggested I switch to Internet Explorer (IE). Bingo! Apparently, this site was designed to operate only with the Microsoft browser.

Being skeptical by nature, I wondered whether this was some deliberate attempt by the software giant to block competitors or merely a mistake. In fact, many governmental and commercial websites require IE. But according to the online statistics tracker W3Counter, only about 25 percent of web surfers use the Microsoft browser. The rest of us rely on something else (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.). That means the vast majority would be unable to shop for health insurance using our normal online access software.

I started calling my high tech friends. There is some disagreement among them as to the reasons for this anomaly. Some say it's an industry bias toward Microsoft products. Others believe its poor testing protocols. But all admit that developers should have designed the health insurance site to work with all browsers. So, why has no one warned us about this particular hiccup? Although there is some discussion of the topic on a few technically oriented social media outlets, I have seen no mainstream news agencies reporting this problem. Covered California does not announce it is only accessible with a specific application (although one customer service rep told me on the phone that this was, in fact, the case). Since upper-level bureaucrats are generally not tech-savvy people, they are probably unaware of this phenomenon. The folks who might understand it usually don't talk to non-geeks. To quote a line from the movie, Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

The good news is that this is a temporary problem. While there is still plenty to criticize, the website's troubles will eventually be corrected. Ask any information technology expert and you'll hear the same thing: New products almost never function correctly when first released. That's why, for example, there are so many updates to computers and smartphones. Even such well-established gadgets as automobiles get recalled periodically. Of course, partisan opponents will continue to attack Obamacare. They have been telling us from the beginning that the government's health insurance program was destined to fail. While this website is clearly not ready for prime time, overwrought critics won't make it better by declaring that the sky is falling. It's time to recognize a few dropping acorns for what they really are -- and stop acting like nuts.

Terry Phillips of Bakersfield, a broadcast journalist, ran an independent campaign against Rep. Kevin McCarthy in 2012. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.

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