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.

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.

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.

“Consumers should certainly not be fined for failing to buy insurance when it is difficult to do so,” Collins said in a prepared statement. “This is yet another reason why the individual mandate should be delayed for a year, just as the president has delayed the employer mandate.”

Thursday’s committee hearing showed clearly that the political fight over the Affordable Care Act is far from done. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and other DHHS officials will face fierce questioning next week.

Republicans are seeking to capitalize – belatedly – on the problems with the website rollout after bearing much of the public’s blame for the 16-day government shutdown and a near default of the federal government.

Although lawmakers from both parties pressed for answers, Republicans probed more aggressively. They demanded names of individuals in the DHHS who were responsible for key decisions and asked why committees were assured weeks before the launch that the website would be ready.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is, in light of all of the administration’s assurances, are they simply incompetent? Or were they just lying to the American people?” said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa.

Tempers flared among committee members.

Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas accused the Obama administration of knowingly violating federal health privacy laws when setting up the system. That prompted a tense exchange between Barton and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who called the proceedings “a monkey court” and accused Republicans of trying to weaken the law by scaring people from enrolling.

“I’d like to think this hearing is above-board and legitimate, but it’s not,” Pallone said. “The Republicans don’t have clean hands coming here. Their effort obviously isn’t to make this better but to use the website and the glitches as an excuse to defund or repeal Obamacare.”

But Democrats also prodded for answers.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., dismissed witnesses’ statements about the crush of website users by pointing out that Amazon.com handles millions of shoppers in the pre-Christmas rush without crashing.

“Taxpayers have paid you a lot of money and you essentially are saying to us that everything is all right when it’s not,” Eshoo said.

Lawmakers also pressed CGI Federal’s Campbell about whether her company requested a delay when it became clear that an Oct. 1 launch might be too soon.

“It’s not our position to tell our client when to go live or not go live,” she said.

In a conference call after Thursday’s hearing, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Julie Bataille, did not directly answer reporters’ questions about the timing of the full-system testing.

“Obviously, due to the compressed time frame, the system was not tested enough,” she said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:kmiller@pressherald.comTwitter: KevinMillerDC
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