Contractors Launch Obamacare Blame Game Without a Glitch

After telling Congress in September that healthcare.gov would be ready, contractors testifying on Thursday are seeking to shift responsibility for the site's problems

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Correction appended, Oct. 24

The last time Cheryl Campbell appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, she barely spoke. A top executive for government contractor CGI Federal, Campbell oversees her firm’s work for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which included building much of the troubled federal insurance-exchange website designed to enroll millions of Americans in new health plans under Obamacare. Testifying about the site’s readiness on Sept. 10, before it launched on Oct. 1 and became hobbled by error messages and bottlenecks, Campbell told House members that CGI Federal’s work on the site, healthcare.gov, was proceeding smoothly and on schedule. She fielded just a few quick follow-up questions, including one from Democratic Representative Frank Pallone, who asked, “Are you on track to deliver on your contract and have things up and running?”

“The answer would be yes. We’re prepared,” she answered.

Six weeks after Campbell provided that reassurance, it’s obvious that healthcare.gov was not ready by its launch date. Campbell will face questions from the same House committee on Thursday at a hearing investigating if and when federal officials implementing the new health care law knew the rollout would not go as planned.

(MORE: Americans Losing Faith in Obamacare)

Those familiar with the process of developing the website say it was not properly tested, lacked the capacity to handle heavy traffic and contained bad computer code that’s now sending garbled and duplicate enrollee information to health insurers. Whether these mistakes are the fault of CGI Federal, other contractors handling different parts of the enrollment process or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversaw outside companies working on and with the website, is still not clear.

In a prepared statement posted online ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Campbell said CGI Federal’s work passed a series of required technical reviews before the launch of healthcare.gov and that the firm “delivered the functionality required by CMS to enable qualified individuals to begin enrolling in coverage when initial enrollment began on Oct. 1.” Campbell said the criticism that the site was not fully tested ahead of time is off the mark. “No amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature,” she said in her statement, adding that many of the problems crippling the website were unforeseen or the fault of other contractors.

Another contractor executive who will testify on Thursday, Andrew Slavitt of Optum/QSSI, said in a prepared statement that a last-minute decision to require consumers to create unique accounts before viewing insurance plans created a bottleneck that inhibited use of the federal exchange site. (A browsing function has since been added to healthcare.gov that does not require registration.)

The title for Thursday’s hearing, to be chaired by Republican Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, is PPACA Implementation: Didn’t Know or Didn’t Disclose? The hearing will offer Republican opponents of the federal health law, formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA or ACA), a chance to lambaste the Obama Administration for launching a website that is still not able to enroll wide swaths of uninsured Americans.

Republicans may also use the hearing to suggest that the computer problems hindering healthcare.gov indicate that the law itself is flawed and should be put on hold. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney hinted that the law’s penalty for not having insurance in 2014 might not be levied immediately against those who could not purchase insurance because of exchange-website problems. At the September hearing, Republican Representative Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania expressed doubt that the law would be ready in time, saying, “I’m a little skeptical this system will function as advertised on Oct. 1 given the myriad of missed deadlines by the Administration, and I’m afraid this Rube Goldberg experiment will not end well.”

Expect to hear more statements like this from Pitts and his Republican colleagues on Thursday. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the top Administration official in charge of implementing the ACA, is scheduled to appear before the same committee on Oct. 30.

A previous version of this article misidentified the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee as Rep. Joe Pitts. It is Rep. Fred Upton. TIME regrets the error. 

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