Builders of Obama's health website saw red flags

Thursday - 10/24/2013, 8:28am EDT

JACK GILLUM
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration's showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.

As questions mount over the website's failure, insider interviews and a review of technical specifications by The Associated Press found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers who pushed out a final product that congressional investigators said was tested by the government and not private developers with more expertise.

Meanwhile, the White House said that President Barack Obama's longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients will provide management advice to help fix the system. White House press secretary Jay Carney says Zients will be on a short-term assignment at the Health and Human Services Department before he's due to take over as director of Obama's National Economic Council Jan. 1.

Carney cited Zients' expertise as a longtime management consultant and his "proven track record" since coming to the White House in 2009, both as interim budget director and as chief performance officer, when he headed an effort to streamline government and cut costs. "We're engaged in an all-out effort to improve the online experience," Carney said.

This is not the first time Obama has turned to Zients for help solving a major problem. In the 2009, after far more drivers than anticipated signed up for the Cash for Clunkers program that promised rebates to people who traded in their old cars for more fuel-efficient vehicles, Obama assigned Zients, his deputy budget director at the time, to help eliminate the backlog.

When the same thing happened with sign-ups for an updated version of the GI Bill, one designed to help the 9/11 generation of veterans get a college education, Obama again turned to Zients.

"He's not going to be looking under the hood and tell you 'I can fix the coding, I can fix it,'" Kenneth Baer, who was a senior adviser to Zients at the budget office, said of Zients' newest assignment. "His skill is going to be how to identify challenges, prioritize what solutions need to be done next, assessing what talent is already available and then how to motivate them to do that job as quickly and as ably as possible."

Aneesh Chopra, who was Obama's chief technology officer, said Zients is extremely skilled in figuring things out from a management perspective.

"If I was confident this issue would be resolved before his participation, I am doubly so now," said Chopra, who also worked with Zients at the Advisory Board Co., one of two business advisory firms where Zients held top posts. "Jeff's track record is really a relentless focus on execution."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a post on HealthCare.gov that her agency is also bringing in more experts and specialists from government and industry, including top Silicon Valley companies.

"This new infusion of talent will bring a powerful array of subject matter expertise and skills, including extensive experience scaling major IT systems," she said. "This effort is being marshaled as part of a cross-functional team that is working aggressively to diagnose parts of HealthCare.gov that are experiencing problems, learn from successful states, prioritize issues, and fix them."

Project developers for the health care website who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity -- because they feared they would otherwise be fired -- said they raised doubts among themselves whether the website could be ready in time. They complained openly to each other about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines. One was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time, one developer said. Website builders saw red flags for months.

A review of internal architectural diagrams obtained by the AP revealed the system's complexity. Insurance applicants have a host of personal information verified, including income and immigration status. The system connects to other federal computer networks, including ones at the Social Security Administration, IRS, Veterans Administration, Office of Personnel Management and the Peace Corps.

Obama on Monday acknowledged technical problems that he described as "kinks in the system." But in remarks at a Rose Garden event, Obama offered no explanation for the failure except to note that high traffic to the website caused some of the slowdowns. He said it had been visited nearly 20 million times -- fewer monthly visits so far than many commercial websites, such as PayPal, AOL, Wikipedia or Pinterest.