October 25, 2013

Designers of health care website: Full testing done far too late

Federal officials decided to ‘go live’ despite the brief test period, causing a chaotic rollout, a congressional panel is told.

Angus King talks with staff writer Steve Mistler about the Affordable Care Act

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Contractors who designed the government’s online health insurance marketplace said Thursday that the problem-plagued website was not fully tested until late September and that federal officials made the decision to “go live” on schedule Oct. 1.

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Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI listens at left as Andy Slavitt, representing QSSI’s parent company, testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing with contractors that built the federal government’s health care websites. The contractors responsible for building the troubled HealthCare.gov website say it was the government’s responsibility – not theirs – to test it and make sure it worked.

The Associated Press

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A screen image of the HeatlhCare.gov homepage.

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Testifying at a congressional hearing with starkly partisan overtones, company representatives acknowledged that the Web-based system designed to help millions of uninsured Americans in 36 states – including Maine – sign up for insurance began failing within the first several thousand users.

They told lawmakers that each of their portions was tested individually, with success. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not begin “end-to-end” testing of the entire system until as late as two weeks before the scheduled launch Oct. 1, the first day consumers could enroll in the marketplace.

“We would have loved to have had months,” said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, the contractor largely responsible for building the website, HealthCare.gov. As for progress fixing the glitches, Campbell told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “we are seeing improvements day over day.”

At least one witness indicated that his company relayed concerns about the website’s readiness to officials in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“All of the risks we saw and all of the concerns we had regarding testing, we shared with CMS,” said Andrew Slavitt of Optum/QSSI, which designed the system to verify applicants’ personal information.

With this month’s 16-day government shutdown over, Washington is now squarely focused on the failed rollout of the online health insurance marketplace, a crucial element of the Affordable Care Act.

Millions of Americans have tried to log onto HealthCare.gov to shop for insurance plans only to encounter site crashes, hours-long delays and inaccurate information. The Obama administration has refused to say how many people have successfully used the site to enroll.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said nearly 700,000 people have successfully submitted applications but not necessarily enrolled. It was unclear whether that figure included hundreds of thousands who used separate web portals offered by states that built their own insurance marketplaces.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a staunch opponent of the federal health care law, opted to use the federal system.

Republicans have seized on the problems to continue pushing to delay health insurance mandates, while Democrats – most of whom have fiercely defended the law – are increasingly frustrated by the embarrassing failure of the website.

“There is a huge political effort going on (against the Affordable Care Act) that is just exacerbated by the problems with the website,” said Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine. “That is a ridiculous mistake that the administration should not have made. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do this.”

Nearly 129,000 Mainers – about 10 percent of the population – lack health insurance, according to 2012 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Maine Bureau of Insurance has estimated that 5 percent to 8 percent of the state’s residents will go to the marketplace for coverage.

The three other members of Maine’s congressional delegation voiced frustration similar to Pingree’s. They were divided, however, on whether the Obama administration should extend the March 31 deadline for uninsured Americans to buy health coverage.

“I would just as soon not take the pressure off the administration,” said independent Sen. Angus King, who along with Pingree opposes a delay at this stage. “I think they ought to make it work.”

Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who supports Obamacare, said: “Given the major technical setbacks, I support extending the enrollment period.” Republican Sen. Susan Collins, an outspoken critic of the law, said the website launch and the enrollment deadline should have been delayed.

(Continued on page 2)

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