The federal government mismanaged the launch of a federal website meant to provide insurance coverage for millions of Americans under Obamacare, according to testimony before a congressional panel on Thursday. Government contractors who appeared before the House Energy and Commerce committee said that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversaw the website, allotted just two weeks to fully test one of the largest government information technology projects in history.
“Months would have been nice,” said Andrew Slavitt, of QSSI, a part of UnitedHealth Group charged with testing parts of the troubled web site. Slavitt said in the time his company had to test healthcare.gov, the site meant to serve uninsured people in 36 states, the firm uncovered numerous software bugs and problems. “We informed CMS that more testing was necessary…[and that] pieces of the system that we had tested that had issues,” said Slavitt.
When asked why healthcare.gov was launched as scheduled on Oct. 1 even though problems were identified ahead of time that seemed likely to affect it’s operation, another contractor at the congressional hearing said CMS made the call to proceed anyway. “It was not our decision to go live…It was CMS’s decision,” said Cheryl Campbell, an executive from CGI Federal, the lead contractor that developed the web site in concert with CMS and other firms. The federal insurance website, which cost about $400 million to develop, build and maintain, was launched the same day that the federal government temporarily shut down over Republican demands that the health care law be delayed, defunded or altered.
Throughout Thursday’s hearing, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized the contractors for offering what was, in retrospect, an overly positive assessment of healthcare.gov’s readiness at a hearing in September. “They said there was nothing wrong and they expressed nothing but optimism,” said Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette. “Three weeks later, here we are. We’re still hearing reports of significant problems.”
On Thursday, the contractors insisted they fulfilled their responsibilities. They said their individual portions of the project to develop the federally run website for insurance enrollment all worked separately. But when the computer code behind the site was sewn together, the system failed to operate properly. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes CMS, is scheduled to appear before the same committee on Oct. 30. Ahead of that, Republican committee members on Thursday repeatedly asked for the names of top HHS officials or bureaucrats that made critical decisions before healthcare.gov was rolled out. Campbell said several times that CMS’s Henry Chao, the agency’s deputy chief information officer, was a key decision-maker.
In written testimony submitted to the committee, Slavitt said a last-minute decision to disable a healthcare.gov function that would allow users to browse health plans without providing personal information to set up accounts contributed to the site’s slowness and crashes. Campbell said CMS decided not to allow such browsing a few weeks before the site was launched. Republican critics have suggested CMS did not want to display total insurance prices, preferring instead to display costs after federal subsidies were applied, which required that users register. Healthcare.gov has subsequently added a limited browsing function that can show prices before registration.
On a call with reporters after the hearing concluded, Julie Bataille, the director of communications for CMS, said the move to initially not allow browsing was a “business decision,” and declined to elaborate. She also said the pre-launch testing process for healthcare.gov was not as rigorous as it should have been. “The system just wasn’t tested enough,” she said. More than three years after the health care law was signed by President Obama, Bataille said a “compressed timeline” made adequate testing impossible.
Since the website went live on Oct. 1, Administration officials, including President Obama, have blamed the site’s woes on unexpected heavy traffic from consumers interested in buying new health insurance. Some consultants who have worked with officials developing exchange websites at the state levels—15 states plus the District of Columbia are running their own exchanges—have said heavy volume is not the sole cause of the crashes and error messages plaguing the federal site, pointing to faulty computer code.
At Thursday’s hearing, Democratic Rep. Ann Eshoo said blaming healthcare.gov’s problems on heavy traffic is “really kind of a lame excuse…eBay and Amazon don’t crash the week before Christmas.”
Campbell, of CGI, and Slavitt, of QSSI, said Thursday their firms are working around the clock to fix computer problems that have inhibited healthcare.gov from operating at full capacity. Campbell said the site is improving and will be able to enroll consumers in health plans before a Dec. 15 deadline to purchase coverage that begins Jan. 1. Bataille, talking with reporters, said CMS had put new website testing functions in place since the Oct. 1 launch and said some 700,000 Americans across the country had filed applications for insurance so far.
But Bataille declined to say how many of these applications were filed through the troubled healthcare.gov site, as opposed to state-run exchange sites, or how many people have successful enrolled, and not just applied. Bataille also did not say whether Sebelius knew about the major website problems before healthcare.gov went live, and declined to identify the technology experts CMS has brought on board in recent days as part of its “tech surge” to help fix the web site.
These and many more questions remain about how a faulty web site at the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act was launched earlier this month. Thursday’s House hearing, titled “Didn’t Know or Didn’t Disclose?” did not offer many answers. More may come next week, when Sebelius herself appears before the Energy and Commerce Committee. She’ll face Republicans eager for a chance to show the health care law is fundamentally flawed and Democrats who seem increasingly frustrated that a law they passed at huge political cost isn’t functioning well enough to help many of the people it was intended to serve.