Contractors Blame Feds for Obamacare Snafu

In congressional testimony, representatives of the companies hired to build healthcare.gov said the White House didn't give them enough time to fix errors

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Douglas Graham / © 2013 CQ Roll Call

Cheryl Campbell, Senior Vice President, CGI Federal in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on October 24, 2013

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.

15 comments
daridekas
daridekas

whatever the contractors are saying the damage has been done and they are the only ones somebody can blame.they ought to take full responsibility and not to try to find excuses.the matter is too serious to be handled by peaple like them.

admin2:invetrics

reallife
reallife

This is nothing! Wait till the IT issues are fixed!

Then you'll see the real problems of obamacare!

ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

Let's see.  You bid on a contract that had a due date.  I assume you worked out a schedule not only for your organization but for every sub-contractor you hired and you gave them a schedule.  Every schedule has a series of phases and report times as well as key dates when you have to have locked in certain objectives.  And since this was a government contract, it couldn't be quick-tracked because they had to define the end product in advance.  For a project, I would expect they would be having progress meetings monthly or more often as needed. I have built 2 plants that took over three years but they all came in under budget and on-time.  The key from the government end is that there can be no changes and there may have been some but the prime contractor already has said that the subs were on schedule so the issue seems to be the coordination between the contractors and the prime which is the prime's responsibility.  So much for how we got where we are.  It is still the prime contractor's responsibility to deliver a usable product.  It is also the prime's responsibility to tell the customer the impact of any requested change-in dollars and in time delays. 

john_rambo
john_rambo

Democrats love to blame people for just about anything.

PerryWhite1
PerryWhite1

I watched some of this. The gist I got was, "The boss didn't make us work hard enough!" Weirdest defense I've ever heard for sloppy work.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"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."

So the contractors are blaming the government for the fact that their software wasn't ready to go online as scheduled. Unfrickenbelievable.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@reallife"Then you'll see the real problems of obamacare!"

Just like in Massachusetts!

“'Eighty-four percent of residents expressed satisfaction with the care they received over the last year, including 56 percent who indicated they are ‘very satisfied’ and 28 percent who are ‘somewhat satisfied,’ the survey report states. Seventy-three percent of residents reported that gaining access to health care they need is 'not difficult,' and for serious medical problems, 86 percent said the amount of time they needed to wait was not a problem."

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/DC-Decoder/2013/0929/Romneycare-vs.-Obamacare-Lessons-for-today-s-shutdown-debacle-video

sumitron_2k@hotmail.com
sumitron_2k@hotmail.com

@ARTRaveler  As part of the build CMS was clueless and continuously kept on changing the requirements and their designs till the last minute and expected vendors to keep on changing their codes. Numerous times it was raised as a risk to defer the time as they did not have a stable application to talk to. But Alas! 

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@PerryWhite1  I've certainly had deadlines blown by bosses or clients changing the parameters of the job mid-stream but these jokers didn't even make that claim. And I'd have been a d@mned fool for blaming them in public either way.

BobJan
BobJan

@shepherdwong @reallife  There goes the federal government with their reinventing something that's already been invented before. Look at how it was implemented in Massachusetts and do the same. But noooooooooooooooooooooo! Let's do it a different/better way and really screw it up. Yes sir, we've got the best government money can buy.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@barneydidit @john_rambo  Or, "the CIA said Saddam had WMD," Republicans, or "Scooter Libby outed Valerie Plame" Republicans, Or 'it was Obama who shut down the government," Republicans, or "Obama created this massive debt," Republicans.  Democrats are forced to blame people who constantly avoid taking responsibility for their own actions, usually guilty, sanctimonious Republicans.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@BobJan "Yes sir, we've got the best government money can buy."

That's why it's Romneycare, rather than what's been previously invented and proven to be more efficient and effective: universal, government-run, single-payer health care. You know, Sosializm.