Why the Healthcare.gov fiasco SHOULD teach us to Open Source Government Application Development.

We Spent How Much?!

According to The Daily Beast the United States Government has spent $118 million to build Healthcare.gov and another $56 million in fixing it…and based on the fact that the site isn’t expected to be fully patched for some time yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the total cost in “fixing” exceeds that of building the system in the first place.

Image courtesy of OpenClipart.org and Iwan Gabovitch
Image courtesy of OpenClipart.org and Iwan Gabovitch

I’m not going to take a position on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – I try to avoid speaking publicly on controversial issues…but I would like to suggest a lesson we can learn from the ACA that I don’t think will be (very) controversial across party lines – that the Government should utilize open source in the development of applications as a standard rule.

Now, I’m not particularly interested in arguing that every government project should be open source – I’ll be happy if 95-99% of them are. I understand that some people rightly or wrongly believe that using open source in sensitive areas could cause security risks. I’ll let Kevin Clough and perhaps Richard Stallman1Though Stallman would argue for free software rather than open source, but I leave that semantics argument, however important it may be, aside for the time being to focus on an area in which a relatively minor change in procedure (moving to open source development) could make a significant change in cost and efficiency. argue that point.2There are some excellent arguments on how and why open source technology can be more secure than closed source technology. Specifically, the additional security in closed source systems usually isn’t b/c the systems are actually more secure but a function of “security by obscurity” – in other words, security holes exist, no one knows about them (including those who wrote the software). But I digress… But for the vast majority of projects (Healthcare.gov for example) I can see no reason why the development should not be open source and believe there would be significant advantages to such a course of action.

Lets take a look at the specific ways in which open source development could have reduced or eliminated the issues involved in the Healthcare.gov launch:


The government (not just one department, but its entirety – e.g. the white house and congress) and the public could much more readily have seen that issues were arising, deadlines were slipping, etc.  and made necessary adjustments.

It is a constant problem within organizations that individuals at higher levels make decisions without the proper knowledge base upon which to make such decisions. This can result in unrealistic timelines and even if the timelines are realistic, if unexpected issues arise and there is slippage, there is a temptation to “gloss over” the setbacks and “hope” that the timeline can still be met.

This oftentimes results in extreme pressure on those actually working on the application as they are pressured to produce more, quicker – which, especially in the case of programming – is unwise. The more you pressure programmers the more likely they are to make mistakes, to take shortcuts and the more hours you demand of them the less productive they will become and, again, the number of bugs will grow exponentially.

Bug Fixes

Open Source software is oftentimes very stable and secure because of the number of eyes looking over the code. Further, individuals who are amateurs can make small contributions that allow the programmers to development on system architecture and bigger issues instead of stomping out bugs and making aesthetic improvements.

It would make sense for the Government to take a similar approach to Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! on this front – each offers cash rewards for the discovery of issues. This is a relatively inexpensive way to get folks to pour in their energies – and individuals receive (for them) a significant compensation (hundreds to thousands of dollars – depending on the issue discovered).

Load Testing

The failure to properly load test the Healthcare.gov site is shocking. An open source project still needs robust methods of load testing performed by the core team – but it also benefits from other individuals and organizations implementing the application and discovering bottlenecks.

An open source, distributed team, also could have easily simulated the significant load that the site experienced upon launch – exposing the load issues early enough for remediation.

Code Reuse

When a project is open source the code can be reused by others for all sorts of purposes. The code to this project would certainly have applications in other government projects as well as the private sector. Reuse of code can significantly streamline development timeframes and even if someone in an entirely uses a portion of code for an entirely different project in a different industry – they will oftentimes contribute their version of the function (with enhancements/bug fixes) back to the original project (resulting in better, more flexible, secure, and robust code).


I really am just spitballing here – but I have a hard time believing that the development of an open source system to perform the Healthcare.gov functions would have cost anywhere near the costs expended thus far upon this closed source system. I’d guess that $10 million could have completed the project in a more robust and timely manner via open source.

Lesson Learned?

Please, let us take a lesson from this fiasco. We want more affordable healthcare – we can start by not wasting millions developing an application as a closed system which lacks robustness and stability.

I know some areas of the Government are already working with open source (and that is great) – but this needs to be a greater emphasis. Perhaps (I don’t know) there should even be some legislation that makes the (required) standard for new applications be open source and any applications which are desired as closed source systems should require review by a panel to determine if there is actual, substantial reasons for developing in a closed source system.

[Apparently I’m not the only one to think OSS could have made a huge difference. See this article by Christina Farr over at VentureBeat. Not directly related, but still interesting is Dylan Tweney’s article “Healthcare.gov costs show that feds have literally no idea how to build a big web site” also on VentureBeat. Another article comes from NBC News staff writer Gil Aegerter and can be found here.]

[11/4: Good article from Matt Asay entitled, “Sorry, Open Source Isn’t the Panacea for Healthcare.gov” on ReadWrite.]

A Detailed Journal of My Experiences Applying for HAMP.


So, I discovered that SPS had left me some voicemails, but I use Google Voice for my voicemails and for some reason Google Voice threw the voicemails into my SPAM folder. While I’m still not happy with the responses SPS gave when I called in, I’m much less upset knowing that they did make an effort to return the calls (unbeknownst to me).

See the bottom of this article for continuing updates about the process.


For various reasons1Namely, a failed business venture in 2008, and the fact that my real estate taxes are not included in my mortgage payments. I’ve experienced significant struggles financially.

The government has created some programs to assist those in this situation – especially homeowners – one of these programs being the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). I am currently in the process of applying to my mortgage provider (Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc.) for HAMP.

This image of a house is thanks to OpenClipart.org.
This image of a house is thanks to OpenClipart.org.

It has been a somewhat complicated and frustrating process and I thought perhaps by documenting my experiences here as I have them I could provide others with insights into the process and perhaps even some insight to the Federal Government and/or mortgage providers on streamlining the process.

This post will be an ongoing process until the application has been completed (whether accepted or rejected). I apologize that some of the earlier information is not as detailed as it might be – I did not begin tracking everything right from the get-go, but I have included as much information as I have been able to collect retroactively and will also keep better records moving forward.

Initial Application

I’m not sure how I originally learned about HAMP – I think I had heard about it on NPR, etc. In any case, I found information regarding the program on the SPS website under “Assistance Programs.”

The details for HAMP in particular are on: https://www.spservicing.com/AssistancePrograms/haModification.aspx. I believe these details may differ slightly from those presented by other mortgage companies, but that the general process will be the same.

The first thing I did was gather all the requested documentation:

  • Filled out an IRS 4506T-EZ Request for Transcript of Tax Return form. This allows the IRS to send specified previous year tax returns to SPS so they can use them to compare the info. I am submitting to what I submitted on my income taxes.
  • Next I gathered the two most recent pay stubs my wife had and then included invoices for all of my income up to the date of submission since I had become full-time self-employed February 1st.2Note, this was a mistake I made. They wanted a profit/loss statement apparently, not what in my mind was the equivalent of pay stubs.
  • I missed including my most recent tax return, probably subconsciously thinking that IRS 4506T-EZ took care of the tax returns.3When I later spoke to SPS on the phone, they informed me that it takes a significant period of time for the IRS to send over the returns, so they can expedite things if I send them the most recent copy.
  • And I filled out the Request for Mortgage Assistance (RMA) form.4This was a bit of a struggle for me. My Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) makes these sort of forms really frustrating and anxiety provoking. I pay a decent bit to H&R Block each year to perform my taxes for me to relieve this stress/anxiety. I have submitted the taxes myself for a number of years, but it is so anxiety provoking and does not reduce in anxiety with the passage of time, that I decided the expense was worth it.

Let me take  a few moments to comment on the RMA form. It was nice that the form is an editable PDF so I could type in the information as I went but I don’t understand why the form is not savable (this would have made it easy to fill out the form in multiple sessions, and to edit and resubmit as necessary). One can fill out the form but cannot save the form with the data in it.

Additionally, the “Loan I.D. Number” fields on page 2 were not long enough when I attempted to include my second mortgage’s loan ID number. I had to write it in later by hand.

Finally, I included a fairly detailed letter explaining my situation and clarifying any aspects which I felt where unclear regarding my applications.

I put it in an envelope and sent it off with high hopes.

First Contact

SPS would eventually call me (I don’t remember the date I first sent the documents and when I received the phone call) and inform me they needed additional documentation. What documentation? Well, they needed the 2012 IRS Tax Return to expedite the process5I had forgotten to include this in the initial application. and they also wanted three months bank statements from my checking account. As far as I know this was not mentioned as a requirement anywhere in the initial documentation process.

This is where HelloFax came in very handy. I was able to send 19 pages of bank statements6Yes, they include a lot of extra blahh that doesn’t really need to be there – but I’ve tried just faxing the relevant pages to financial organizations before and been told they need all of the pages even if not relevant, so I included them all. and 13 pages of my 2012 IRS tax return. It cost me maybe $2.7HelloFax offers free faxing, but I had gone over my limit…but it is still a lot cheaper/easier than buying a fax machine, going to a local store and paying for faxes, etc. I sent these documents in on June 7th according to HelloFax.

After this I would receive several more contacts informing me that documentation was missing. It appears that for whatever reason they did not receive all of my faxed documents.8I’ve found HelloFax to be entirely reliable in the past, so I would lean towards believing that the documents were misplaced or the fax machine malfunctioned at SPS’ end. But that is neither here nor there, faxing is such an antiquated technology it needs to be dealt a long overdue death. Thankfully, they informed me that I could email the documents to them via [email protected] So I sent over an email with the same documents I had faxed over – this was on June 10th. The subject line of my email was “Attn: (Name of Assigned SPS Agent), Required Documents as Needed, (Loan Number).” These were successfully received by SPS.

Lost in the System

I called SPS’ number several times to ensure they had received my documents. The number given was 866-820-6218. I had a specific extension for my assigned agent – but I could never enter it, the phone system lacked the prompt and/or ability to accept extensions directly.9I know, I know, “Dave, you just don’t know what you are doing” but I swear, I tried multiple times and I’m pretty tech savvy, including a fair amount of familiarity working with PBX’es and Automated Call Attendants from the administrative/technical side.

I ended up speaking with random representatives who told me I was missing documentation, I would inform them I had sent the documentation, they would confirm it had been received, and then I’d get a call telling me that I needed to send in more documentation – so I would call in again, have a similar discussion, and receive the same assurances.

I asked to be transferred to my agent on occasion, but was informed that the individual was unavailable. I requested a note be added for the agent to return my call, but no call was received. I also sent an email to my account manager requesting contact via SPS’ email [email protected] with the subject “Attn: (Account Representative), Acct: (Loan Number)” on the 12th of June like so:

“(Account Representative),
I attempted to call your number as printed on the letter I received from SPS (866-820-6218) and enter the extension given (extension) but it seems the system does not have any option for accepting extensions.
In any case, I wanted to confirm that you had received all the required documentation from me regarding the requested HAMP modification. I had faxed the documents over but received a call informing me that the documents had not been received so I sent them over via email, but did not receive any confirmation that they were received.
You can reach me at (my cell number).
Dave Mackey”

I received an email from SPS the same day acknowledging (via automated system) that my email had been received, but did not receive a call back.10As you’ll note, I’ve eliminated the account representatives’ name. The rep. could have been on vacation, ill, overloaded with other cases, etc. and I don’t want to subject the representative to any form of harassment when journals of activities such as this have been posted on the web.

Over the next number of days and weeks I would receive confusing letters from SPS – I wish I had kept physical copies. They essentially acknowledged again and again (I think I received fix or six) receiving documentation from me and that I would be contacted – but didn’t say what had been received or any other useful details.

I also received one that seemed to be asking me to reapply for HAMP from the get-go. This scared me, so I believe I called SPS again and was assured they had the documentation.

Finally, a few days ago, I think maybe June 28th, I received a letter from SPS entitled “INCOMPLETE INFORMATION NOTICE.” It stated that “If we do not receive the required documents by 7/24/13 we will consider your request for a modification to be withdrawn…” and so on. Well, that gives me a few weeks to try and send in additional info.

At the bottom of the first page it stated that the missing documentation was “Income Documentation” – and said I needed to submit two of the most recent paystubs – which I had for my wife (who is regularly employed) and had included several months of invoices for myself recording all my self-employed income.11I figured I’d give them extra, as I know they oftentimes want extra documentation when it comes to self-employment. So, I’m not entirely sure what this refers to, I’ve been unable to reach my account manager to clarify, and speaking with other representatives has not clarified the issue thus far.

My guess is that I mailed out the initial application around June 1st and it is now July 1st. The length isn’t too concerning, I know these things take time…and hopefully I can overcome these hiccups and move forward with the application.

I’m going to try and send them perhaps a summarized sheet of income from Feb 1st to the present for my self-employed income and see if that “fixes the glitch” and simultaneously I’ll continue attempting to contact my account representative via email and phone and hopefully can get some clarification on this issue.

Well, that brings you up-to-date on my process thus far. I’ll continue to expand this post as I take additional steps and receive additional communications from SPS. Let me know if you have any insights on the process and I hope this documentation will be helpful to others, especially those who might be customers of SPS, but I think it will also be useful to anyone attempting to apply for HAMP.

Ongoing Journal Entries

  • 7/2 – Received a phone call from SPS account manager (not the one I’d been assigned) informing me they needed a profit/loss statement for the past quarter. I generated one in Freshbooks and sent it over via email (asked if I could send it in this manner and they indicated this was acceptable). Hopefully I’m unlost. =)
  • 7/10 – As of yet I have not received any further communications from SPS. However, there was the Fourth of July holiday, so if we are generous, it has only been three full days since last communications (this being the fourth).
  • 7/13 – Received a phone call from SPS. They informed me that they had received my profit/loss statement and added it to my file two days ago, but that underwriters had not yet looked at it – but that they should within the next week (I’m guessing by 7/19). After which time, if everything is correct (and they didn’t state, but I assume, I meet the requirements) it will be passed on to the Treasury (I assume the U.S. Treasury Department). From there the representative informed me it is usually a thirty day turn-around period before the Treasury Department responds…So, sounds like some forward momentum, but also sounds like I won’t know anything for sure until almost September.
  • 7/24 – Discovered that SPS had left some voicemail messages but Google Voice had thrown them in the SPAM folder – so I never saw them until just a day or two ago. Makes me less upset with SPS.
  • 7/?? – Received another notice from SPS. It seems to be the same sort of form letter I have received so many copies of previously and doesn’t appear to show any different information.
  • 8/13 – Waiting…and waiting…and waiting.
  • 8/20 – Called SPS and requested an update on the status. The representative indicated that I had completed documentation in mid-July and that it could take “30-45” days for a decision to be made. So, I guess that means I should hear something early in September…hopefully, maybe even before.
  • 8/31 – Received a letter from SPS indicating that we had been accepted into the HAMP program. This was great news! The new estimated payment is significantly lower and will be a great help. It sounds like the taxes and homeowner’s insurance are also rolled into this – which if true, makes the new lower payment even more amazing. Now we are in a “trial” period. Fingers crossed!

News Summary for April 5, 2013.