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Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact: Huffington Post's Sam Stein says 'no one beta-tested' health insurance marketplace website

The statement

"No one beta-tested" healthcare.gov.

Sam Stein, in comments on MSNBC's Morning Joe

The ruling

The rollout of the Obama administration's health insurance marketplaces website has been so riddled with problems that even journalists from left-leaning media are calling for top officials to be hauled before Congress.

"It seems from all of the reporting, and from what I can gather, that up until very recently they didn't realize how bad this was going to go out," Huffington Post political editor Sam Stein said Monday on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "And no one beta-tested the site, which is almost criminal when you think about it."

The beta-testing line got picked up by conservative outlets such as the National Review and the Blaze, and we wanted to check it out.

There was some testing, it turns out, but likely not beta testing.

Stein directed us to a Washington Examiner report that said officials did not allow testing on the website until just days before it went live Oct. 1.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, described how government officials and contractors proceeded with the Oct. 1 rollout despite a botched crucial test days earlier. They ran a simulation, unsuccessfully, in which a few hundred people tried to log onto the website at the same time. The failure proved an early warning of the bumpy road to come. Officials went forward with the launch, and the website locked up almost immediately when 2,000 users tried step one, the Post reported.

"Beta testing" is a very specific term in the tech world that most professional software goes through before launching. It comes after a product is in an "alpha" phase, or the earliest version of software that is subject to some tests to find any big issues. When a product reaches beta, it is tested by a larger group of people not connected to its development in an effort to gather feedback and make more fixes before a large-scale launch.

Big tech companies like Google sometimes launch products in beta mode, but enterprise and government software vendors don't usually do it that way, said Alexander Howard, former Washington correspondent for tech-centric O'Reilly Media and a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. They stop adding features in the months preceding a launch to "start testing the heck out of it," Howard said.

The development of healthcare.gov has been an entirely different story, he said, with no use of those terms.

"The only thing we have is reporting that says the first testing occurred the last week before it went live, and then it went live," Howard said. "There was testing, but it's not clear that it was in a beta version."

According to published reports, healthcare.gov got additional features quite close to the launch, with no evidence of a consumer-centric test that went outside of the government.

"Even if those tests nominally did occur, they were as good as nonexistent based on the complexity of the project," said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican digital strategist.

We reached out to CMS and CGI Federal, one of the main contractors for the website, but did not hear back. (We suspect they're busy.)

Our ruling

Stein said, "No one beta-tested" healthcare.gov.

While there are reports of limited website testing, Stein specifically referred to beta-testing, which is a phrase that traditionally means certain members of the public were allowed to access the website well before it opened. There's no evidence to suggest that happened, and the federal government isn't talking.

We rate Stein's claim Mostly True.

Katie Sanders, Times staff writer. Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: Huffington Post's Sam Stein says 'no one beta-tested' health insurance marketplace website 10/23/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 11:07pm]
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