“Glitch” is clearly the word of the moment, after a series of pesky little technical problems forced United Airlines to ground flights, halted New York Stock Exchange trading and took down The Wall Street Journal website homepage all on the same day. If that wasn’t enough technical trouble, Seattle’s 911 system went down briefly. And a couple of NASA spacecraft also suffered “glitches” in recent days.
We deal routinely with glitches these days — a Wi-Fi connection goes down, an app freezes, a plug-in (usually Shockwave) stops responding, an email doesn’t load properly — which may help explain why, aside from lots of grumbling from delayed airline passengers, the reaction to Wednesday’s glitches was rather muted. The NYSE problems were reportedly caused by a “configuration issue” after a software update and United blamed its problem on “degraded network connectivity.” We see those issues every day, just not on as large a scale.
But that’s the problem.
At the risk of sounding like a high school term paper, let us note that the Merriam-Webster definition of glitch is “an unexpected and usually minor problem; especially: a minor problem with a machine or device (such as a computer).” The full definition describes it as a minor problem that causes a temporary setback.
Sure, Wednesday’s setbacks were all temporary. The Wall Street Journal site came back up quickly. Seattle’s 911 service was restored. Action on the NYSE itself was stopped for nearly four hours, but even then traders were still able to buy and sell NYSE-listed stocks on other exchanges. United grounded about 3,500 flights, which meant some people missed a wedding or a crucial business meeting. That will take time to sort out, but it will get sorted out.
In aggregate, though, the problems add up — and the word “glitch” only minimizes what can be much bigger, more serious issues..
Stock exchanges have suffered from a series of stoppage-causing glitches in recent years, pointing to the value of having trading spread across numerous exchanges. United’s tech breakdown “marked the latest in a series of airline delays and cancellations in the last few years that experts blame on massive, interconnected computer systems that lack sufficient staff and financial backing,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Just ask any of the roughly 400,000 United passengers whose travel plans were messed up if this was a little glitch. Or maybe check with the engineers who had to troubleshoot and rebuild the HealthCare.gov site after its glitch-laden launch.
It may be some relief that these latest outages weren’t the result of external attacks, but as sociologist Zeynep Tufecki, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of North Carolina, writes at The Message, “The big problem we face isn’t coordinated cyber-terrorism, it’s that software sucks. Software sucks for many reasons, all of which go deep, are entangled, and expensive to fix.”
These foul-ups are now mundane, and to some extent they may be inevitable as we rely more and more on complicated computer systems in every aspect of our lives. That’s the real issue, and it’s a lot bigger than a glitch.
The cost of insulin used to treat Type 1 diabetes nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, according to an analysis released this week by the Health Care Cost Institute. Researchers found that the average point-of-sale price increased “from $7.80 a day in 2012 to $15 a day in 2016 for someone using an average amount of insulin (60 units per day).” Annual spending per person on insulin rose from $2,864 to $5,705 over the five-year period. And by 2016, insulin costs accounted for nearly a third of all heath care spending for those with Type 1 diabetes (see the chart below), which rose from $12,467 in 2012 to $18,494.
The partial government shutdown has hit the economy like a hurricane – and not just metaphorically. Analysts at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said Tuesday that the shutdown has now cost the economy about $26 billion, close to the average cost of $27 billion per hurricane calculated by the Congressional Budget Office for storms striking the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. From an economic point of view, it’s basically “a self-imposed natural disaster,” CRFB said.
The U.S. could save billions of dollars a year if Medicare were empowered to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies, according to a paper published by JAMA Internal Medicine earlier this week. Researchers compared the prices of the top 50 oral drugs in Medicare Part D to the prices for the same drugs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which negotiates its own prices and uses a national formulary. They found that Medicare’s total spending was much higher than it would have been with VA pricing.
In 2016, for example, Medicare Part D spent $32.5 billion on the top 50 drugs but would have spent $18 billion if VA prices were in effect – or roughly 45 percent less. And the savings would likely be larger still, Axios’s Bob Herman said, since the study did not consider high-cost injectable drugs such as insulin.