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. 

45 comments
SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

Oh here's a nice neutral article to go with a nice neutral "investigation". In my experience, IT witch hunts take hard jobs and make them impossible. But witch burning in this case is the goal. In fact, we are talking about one administrative tool for reaching the public out of dozens for a relatively small but important market sector - individual policies. Millions of these people have had no option before. At any rate it is a smaller part of a much bigger law. "Obamacare" is not an insurance plan or a piece of technology. Nice job confusing people.

It is also professionally reprehensible and sloppy journalism. The Standish Group tracks over 50,000 development projects, including really big one. Of 3,555 projects between 2003 and 2012 that had labor costs over $10 million, only 6.4% were successful. 52% had significant shortfalls and 41.4% were outright failures. All in all, healthcare.gov is above the standards of the industry already. Those screaming now will not give the slightest credit when it works. They will also lose more and more credibility over time. As for the corporate pre$$, it will get its biggest black eye since the post 9/11 induced political psychosis and its ultimate achievement, the Iraq war.

Berthold
Berthold

The mistakes on the website are only form errors.  The importance of OBAMACARE is the content, which will allow 45 millions persons and more to reach the benefits of health care in the most advance economy in the world. On the other hand, we, americans, should be aware that technology could fail, so we most be humble and have the patience for this program to run smoothly. We have become a nation that believe that we deserve the best instantly. This is a big misunderstanding in trouble economic times worldwide. This nation deserves to show the world that we care about the poor and the needed as Canada and the European Union cares about their citizens. It seems that the Republican Party at last has recognized the importance of an almost universal health care system, by showing, sarcastically, their interest in the functioning of the Obama Health Care Program. Let's be patience and humble, and praise that finally in so many many years there has been a real change in Washington stalemate structures with the establishment of the Obama Health Care System. Those politicians who call themselves as religious and ask for our votes every time there is an election, have to believe that religions, be there protestant or catholic, care about the poor and the needed. Protestant and catholics bibles shows it.   

Veteran68
Veteran68

How sad and embarrassing it is for our country to hear that certain HARD WORKING, INTELLIGENT individuals tasked with helping create a Health Care system that millions of U.S. citizens could benefit from, are going to be subjected to a "lambasting" from a mob of narrow-minded, negative, self-centered politicians. Rather then trying to be part of the solution, they are, in many other ways as well, this nations main problem.

Overall better Health Care for our citizens has certainly got to be a good thing and co-operating together to get the Health Care website up and effective could lead to new insights into computing and many even more U.S. based jobs.

I say "Think positive or step aside"

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

Republicans and other assorted cheapskates who don't want to purchase health insurance are just trying to gain the political advantage in the usual Washington-style, and try to use it to delay implementation of the program so they have more time to try and kill it. Look for lots of phony outrage and on-camera posturing for folks back home in the District during the hearings.

tom.litton
tom.litton

Some random computer quotes:

"If cars followed the same evolution as computers, today a Rolls Royce would cost $100 get 100 miles per gallon, and explode once a year killing everyone inside."

"If engineers built buildings like programmers built software, then the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization."

daridekas
daridekas

it is unbelievable that such a serious matter has been dealted so irresponsible by those little peaple.

admin2://invetrics

thebax
thebax

Watch Obama stall the coverage for another year keeping everyone in the dark so they have no idea if they can even get health insurance! Bet ya a million bucks he doesn't stall all the hidden taxes he slammed us with! 

What a lying,sneaky, sack of @#$%!! He's so transparent you can't even see him when he hits you while you're down!!

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Instead of wasting yet more tax payer time and money  on dog and pony shows, perhaps this Congress can do something to make up for the 2.1 million jobs that their obstructionist policies have cost us since 2011.

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

It's possible to "patch" bad code. But no amount of patching fixes bad design.  You can't patch around bad logic.

j45ashton
j45ashton

The Supreme Court didn't rule on ACA constitutionality until last June, one year & 3 months before launch.   Clearly, there was ample time to create requirements and design.  Here are some open questions.

1.  Are the current problems due to:Incomplete or inaccurate requirements?  If so, why?

2. Are the current problems due to:Incomplete or poor design?  If so, why?

3. Was development held off until the Supreme Court ruling?  (Not unreasonable as the greatest amount of money is usually spent in development)

4. Did the timing of the Supreme Court ruling cut down on development time adversely affecting development, testing & rollout?

5. Did IT management establish escalation procedures right up to the president & secretary of health?  If not, why?  

6.  Were the president & secretary of health apprised of any adverse situations & impacts?  If not, why?  If so, what were their responses?

These are reasonable starting points.  The fiasco will be due to the committee's ignorance of IT in general and due to GOP anxiousness to assign blame rather than reveal truth.


AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

A couple of things come to mind here;

1.  Carney "hinted" that the deadline for enrollment "might" be extended.  OK, businesses got a year's delay before the computer problems and We the People may get an extension.  If they can't get this thing fixed within a month they should extend the deadline a full year.  Then take the time to get it right.

2.  It's very clear to me that CGI pretty much bobbled the ball here.  They are now parsing over details in the contract and are saying how they met the specified deadlines for specified contractual obligations instead of owning up to their own responsibilities.  They have a rather checkered performance history.  This is what these kinds of company's do.  They fall back on the letter of the contract instead of owning up.

3.  According to Reuters the contract that the Federal Government signed with CGI amounted to about $94 million with a base value of $55.7 million.  The value of that contract has now ballooned to a potential of $292 million.  Until CGI gets this thing working flawlessly the U.S. government should suspend all invoices and hold payment on everything.  THAT should get their attention.  And, if CGI can't come through then it should be held accountable in a court of law.

4.  While I agree that the launch of the website is completely separate from the ACA law itself this does not bode well for the program overall.  Critics will rightly point out that how can we trust a nation wide health care program when we can't even get it off the ground after years of planning and preparation?  That is a valid concern.  Especially when the then Speaker of the House exclaimed "we have to pass it before we can know what's in it."

Talk about a SNAFU!

drdischord
drdischord

This fiasco is a direct result of Al Gore's "Reinventing Government" campaign, in the Clinton Administration.  They outsourced IT development and operations to high-profit "Beltway Bandit" contractors and laid off the Federal employees who'd been doing the work.  It was a move away from the Reagan Administration's commitment to open systems and data security.  Beltway bandits like Booz Allen and Lockheed depend for their profits on keeping secrets from their customer (the taxpayers) and the other contractors.  "Reinventing Government" (outsource everything) remained the policy under Bush and Obama.   When you don't let the different teams working on a big web site talk to each other, you get exactly the disaster that's now playing out at Healthcare.gov.  We need to fire these Beltway bandits and bring back the simple, open systems maintained in house.

j45ashton
j45ashton

This hearing will basically be a fiasco.  But it will possibly be useful if it reveals the same kind of nutty things that go on every day in most major American corporations where there are utter disconnects between senior mgt & IT.

George286
George286

Oh jeez, of course the Republicans are going to use the hearing to suggest that the computer problems hindering healthcare.gov indicate that the law itslelf is similarly flawed, as if that even meets the basic tests of logic --all part of the same tidal wave of BS from the TP about the ACA.  Not to mention that they have already enrolled perhaps millions of people in it without a hitch.

The healthcare law was drafted by congress and the senate, with help from the HHS, the White House and participation from the healthcare industry, it was not something they farmed out to software contractors.  Please.

And the law will no doubt need fine tuning to run at 100% of optimum, that was stated back when they passed it, Medicare did too, but I don't see happening until the House is no longer run by a bunch of sabotaging lunatics that see it as the End Times.


GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

Lets see the government launches a web site where Most Americans are going to be immediately interested in getting health insurance insurance cheaper than they can now.

Almost all other major internet ventures are private enterprise and this is the governments first foray into providing a truly high volume internet online service.

What could possibly go wrong? - What a surprise, pretty much everything.

They'll get it fixed, it's just a bit further over their heads than they hoped.

And when they get it fixed it's still going to be better, cheaper health insurance than most Americans can get now.

This whole issue is basically insignificant and of no lasting importance.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@SmoothEdward1 Yes, and it's a shame.  It's an opportunity to fundamentally change the way government approaches software projects for the better.   It could save the governments (fed and states) millions of dollars.

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@tom.litton  

I have heard variations of the first one that praise computers. Yours is more accurate.

The second one is exactly as I heard it, long ago, and puts the blame where it really belongs.

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

@tom.litton Woodpeckers? I wondered what keeps messing up my devices. I always through it was bugs. But really it is woodpeckers going after bugs. I have seen the light!

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@thebax

"What a lying,sneaky, sack of @#$%!! He's so transparent you can't even see him when he hits you while you're down!!"

This describes you more than Obama. You will use anything to slam Obama even when it's the privatized operations that are at fault.

barneydidit
barneydidit

@thebax Wait...you're complaining that Obama may create a situation where people won't know if they'll have health insurance or not...but in the meantime the right has been trying to repeal Obamacare since the day it was signed into law, without even pretending to have something in mind to replace it with?

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

@j45ashton I agree.  What is to be gained by the public if this hearing is only to give republicans an opportunity to attack the program.  How does that help the program to get up and running  smoothly and properly.   If these questions are not asked and it's turned into another GOP circus, then time is wasted and the folks who need  to get signed up are delayed even more. 

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@AlphaJuliette  

" Especially when the then Speaker of the House exclaimed "we have to pass it before we can know what's in it.""

 And you can't even get your quotes right. 

SamuelClemens
SamuelClemens

@AlphaJuliette

Yes, and the witch hunt is yet another political stunt that such things attract. These things have a depressing frequency. Been through it too many time and must turn my eyes away.

The Standish Group tracks over 50,000 development projects, including really big one. Of 3,555 projects between 2003 and 2012 that had labor costs over $10 million, only 6.4% were successful. 52% had significant shortfalls and 41.4% were outright failures. All in all, healthcare.gov is above the standards of the industry already.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@AlphaJuliette  

1.  Delaying it a full year will leave people that are sick without healthcare for another year.   I doubt they will need more than a couple of months to hobble together a site that will get the job done (although far from perfect).

2.  I'm pretty sure it was bobbled by all of them, from the HHS, who didn't actually verify it was working well, to the executives who denied reality, to the managers who lied to their bosses because that's what they wanted, to the programmers who didn't stand up and say "We can't do that in the time we have left."

3.  The first 90% of the project uses the first 90% of the budget.  The last 10% of the project is what uses the other 90% of the budget. 

4.  Then the states should build their own exchanges.  Those that did are having a much smoother ride.

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

@AlphaJuliette You sound like you never wanted this program to start with and probably have your own insurance already so don't need it.  Many others do.  Placing blame is one thing, but if this hearing is not going to determine what needs to be done to get it running, then it's a waste of time.  You say there was years of planning for this?  Really?  They've been under constant threat of repeal even after the supreme court upheld it.  Snafu's sure.  That's true with any program startup.

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@drdischord  

Privatizing has long been a republican policy. The Clinton administration was too enamored of finding things on the other side they could preempt. I suspect everything Clinton got wrong in running the government was from adopting republican ideas. 

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

@drdischord I do agree with the general principal that outsourcing work is never a good idea.  To start with, people who want to do this contracted work are not going to do it without profit, versus cost containments that our government agencies have, with good congressional oversight of course.  You lose too much control  when you outsource.

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@j45ashton

" major American corporations where there are utter disconnects between senior mgt & IT."

Sorry, you blew it. Now if you had said, "senior management and everybody who actually does the job" I would have to salute you. 

 
Gave you a like anyway.

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@GaryRMcCray  

"

Almost all other major internet ventures are private enterprise and this is the governments first foray into providing a truly high volume internet online service.

What could possibly go wrong? - What a surprise, pretty much everything."

 The screw ups were done by private enterprise. 

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@GaryRMcCray "Most Americans.....getting health insurance insurance cheaper than they can now".... that remains to be seen. People with pre-existing conditions will certainly get lower cost insurance.   Younger, healthy people that don't have and don't want insurance but forced to buy will most assuredly be paying more.  Everyone else, only time will tell.

ACA will define President Obama's term in office.  It is far from certain whether that is good or bad.




AlphaJuliette
AlphaJuliette

@GaryRMcCray I disagree.  This is basically very significant and will have a very long lasting effect.  The problems that are being reported point to a fundamental problem that may not be fixed in time.  While Carney says we might get an extension the reality is that this thing may be delayed a year.  The extension is aimed at April 15th when we all have to file our taxes.  If enough people cannot sign on in time then penalties will be enforced unfairly.

aztecian
aztecian

@GaryRMcCray exactly, but the republiKKKans want to kill it and are probably behind some of the glitches.

BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@JohnDavidDeatherage @GaryRMcCray  

People with pre-existing conditions won't get cheaper insurance, simply because insurance you can't get at all costs zero. OTOH, medical care without insurance can easily become so expensive you don't get it at all. Again, cost zero. Dollars that is, life is another matter. 

 Young and healthy people who don't want insurance are, from what I see, few and far between. Many of them have employer provided insurance through their parents, which they didn't have before. 

All of them should have insurance, since damn few can actually pay the cost of and significant injury or disease they would have to have treatment for. 

 

Onepatriot
Onepatriot

@JohnDavidDeatherage @GaryRMcCray So you'd rather we plodded along with the old system whereby my insurance subsidized the hospitals  to pay outrageous fees for those who had no insurance?  Younger folks have to have insurance on their cars to drive.  They need to have insurance for when they end up at the ER or Dr's office.  The old system did not work!

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@BobFromDistrict9 @JohnDavidDeatherage @GaryRMcCray (1) people with preexisting conditions can't be denied coverage which means they will be able to purchase or change coverage. (2) people without health insurance just use the local hospital's emergency room and don't pay. (that is what this crisis is really about). (3) The majority of the uninsured are young and healthy and so choose not to buy insurance (see adverse selection) (4) which is why they are being compelled by law to buy insurance or pay a penalty tax.

ACA hinges on at least 7 million of the young and uninsured buying coverage. If they don't convince at least 7 million to buy coverage which will subsidize a portion of the rest of us. ACA will experience a death spiral where rising premiums price people out of the market  which causes premiums to increase again.  (a negative feedback loop)


BobFromDistrict9
BobFromDistrict9

@JohnDavidDeatherage @Onepatriot @GaryRMcCray  

My daughter was feeling poorly, and asked me to make an appointment for the doctor. The office told me neither doctor was in the office, and would not be for two days. They suggested my daughter go to the Urgent Care facility, right behind the hospital near us. 

 Seems one of the hospital systems in this city established a free standing urgent care center. 

 Suggest that one to your friend. 

JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@Onepatriot @JohnDavidDeatherage @GaryRMcCray Personal story; friend of mine is on the hospital board in my home town. We were talking about the crisis in health care, and the use of the emergency room for basic health care by the uninsured.  I suggested that the hospital set up an urgent care and send the uninsured that were not true emergencies to urgent care at a lower cost to the hospital. He said it was a great idea but they (and other hospitals) were prevented from treating the uninsured in any other department besides the emergency room (the most expensive dept.).  A state law or a federal law (I don't remember which) prevented the hospital from a simple cost saving move.


JohnDavidDeatherage
JohnDavidDeatherage

@Onepatriot @JohnDavidDeatherage @GaryRMcCray No the old system did not work. I'm not sure the new system will work any better and there's a high probability that it will be worse.  FYI I think we need a single payer system like medicare for everyone.