Kelly Kennedy and Catalina Camia
H. DARR BEISER, USA TODAY
Contractors Cheryl Campbell of CGI Federal, Andrew Slavitt of Optum/QSSI, Lynn Spellecy of Equifax Workforce Solutions and John Lau of Serco testify at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the problems with the Affordable Care Act website.
WASHINGTON Contractors who built the troubled HealthCare.gov website faced heated questioning Thursday from lawmakers as Congress held the first of what is expected to be many hearings aimed at understanding the site’s flaws.
Politics, however, echoed throughout a hearing that delved into technical problems that threaten to tarnish the legacy of President Obama’s signature domestic achievement. Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, told the committee that the Obama administration ultimately bears responsibility as the “systems integrator or quarterback on this project.” She and other contractors testified that confusion among the tech firms, as well as high demand for health insurance, led to problems with the website.
When the contractors were asked by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., whether they had recommended delaying the website launch Oct. 1, they indicated it was not up to them.
“It was not our decision to go live,” Campbell said. That was up to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency tasked with spearheading the project, she said.
Andrew Slavitt of Optum/QSSI said the contractors’ concerns, which were mostly related to testing, were shared with CMS officials. He said they understood the problems and were working on them.
“We did fully talk about the risks that we saw, and we passed them along,” he said.
The House hearing came as complaints about the website grew louder in Congress. Republicans and some Democrats are seeking to extend the open enrollment period that began Oct. 1 and get clarification about when penalties will be levied on people who don’t obtain insurance.
At times, the committee’s majority Republicans focused the hearing on assigning blame while Obama’s Democratic allies tried to steer the discussion into what needs to be done to fix the site.
“Did they not know? Or did they not disclose?” Upton asked, suggesting the Obama administration is “allergic to transparency.”
“This is not about blame,” he said. “It’s about accountability.”
The White House said Wednesday night that it will soon issue policy guidance making clear that people who sign up for insurance by March 31, 2014, will not face a penalty. Still, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., said he would seek a delay in the individual mandate and a waiver for those who are unable to sign up online.
Obama has made fixing the health care website a priority and has emphasized that the 2010 law is more than the website.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the Affordable Care Act is “an enormous success, with one obvious problem,” which is the technology. “If we want this law to work, we’ve got to make it right, we’ve got to fix it, not what the Republicans are trying to do: nix it and repeal it.”
Campbell of CGI said another contractor was responsible for the technology that allowed users to create new accounts and which caused the initial bottleneck issues on the site. She called the tech glitches a “front-door problem,” stressing that the online exchange has steadily improved over the past two weeks.
Campbell said testing was done throughout the process of building HealthCare.gov. She said CGI’s portion of the site worked when it was tested, but when it was integrated into the entire system, it did not work, she said.
She and Slavitt said the contractors would have preferred more time to test the technology.
“Months would be nice,” he said.Contributing: David Jackson
Government did not test health site as needed
WASHINGTON Not enough tests were performed on the HealthCare.gov website by the government and its contractors before the site was launched Oct. 1, a Department of Health and Human Services official said Thursday.
“The system just wasn’t tested enough,” said Julie Bataille, communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is in charge of the site. “We all know we were working under a compressed time frame.”
Her remarks came after contractors testified at a hearing that they had just two weeks to test the site.
The department has added bandwidth and is performing more and improved testing before adding elements, she said. It also has improved the application section, hardware is being added, and “bugs” are being fixed as they occur, she said.
She said 1.6 million people have called the call center, and the wait for help for less than a minute.
She and President Obama have said people can sign up by phone, paper or in person.
Jonathan Wu of Value Penguin.com, which analyzes data about health care, said no one will avoid HealthCare.gov entirely. “If you call the call center, a lot of times they fill out the paper application because they can’t get to the online application. … It’s not necessarily any faster or better to go through those systems.”