Sebelius: “Give Us the Same Slack You Give Apple”

Kathleen Sebelius compared glitches to an iPhone software update.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

A number of people trying to access or equivalent state level marketplaces this morning are experiencing technical difficulties. This will not be surprising to devoted Moneybox readers, and at a briefing I attended yesterday at the Department of Health and Human Services the dedicated health care beat reporters of Washington, D.C., were also armed with questions on the subject. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ answer came primarily in the form of an analogy.

“I clearly have an iPad and I also have an iPhone and about 10 days ago I got the prompt that the operating system had changed,” she said. So she agreed to iOS 7 upgrade. But then a couple of days later along came a new message that said “now we have a new new upgrade and why don’t you re-upgrade your upgrade.” It wasn’t all that surprising. Everyone knows that a brand-new software release is usually followed by one or more rapid-fire bug fixes once it’s out in the field. But people don’t run around talking about how the sky is falling. Instead, she said, “everyone just assumes ‘well there’s a problem, they’ll fix it.’ “

I think it’s a good analogy, though there is obviously a difference. Apple has a long track record making technology products. What’s more, lots of people—most people in fact—don’t buy Apple’s technology products. So Apple’s customer base consists of a self-selected minority of people who based on Apple’s long track record in the industry choose to buy its phones, tablets, and computers.

The health care marketplaces, by contrast, will need to gain the trust of customers who may be skeptical or hostile about the underlying project. They’re also launching into a highly politicized partisan crossfire in which many people have a huge vested interested in blowing problems out of proportion.

“We’re building a complicated piece of technology,” Sebelius observed, “and hopefully you’ll give us the same slack you give Apple.”

It’s a nice thought, but probably not an incredibly realistic one. That said, in a way I think the government shutdown drama helps HHS here. The reality is that the first few days are likely to be rough and then the experience will improve. Absent a government shutdown, though, the rough first few days would be a dominant political story and cover everyone’s perception. With eyes glued on the shutdown this week, HHS will have the chance to do fixes and anyone who can’t log on today will just come back next week.

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