HealthCare.gov contractors point fingers at CMS for site bottlenecks

Thursday - 10/24/2013, 3:35pm EDT

Three weeks after the rocky, glitch-prone launch of the new HealthCare.gov website, the contractors responsible for key parts of the website told lawmakers that the federal government was responsible for comprehensively testing the site and that a late decision to require logging into the system before browsing for insurance plans created bottlenecks that crippled the site.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee called representatives from four contractors — including prime contractor CGI Federal — to testify about the site's launch Thursday. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is set to testify before the committee next week.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was responsible for conducting the end-to-end tests before the site launched — and ultimately made the decision to launch the site on time, the company heads testified

"It was not our decision to go live. ... It was CMS' decision," said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, the contractor responsible for the main technological underpinnings of the website. "It was not our decision one way or the other."

She said her company wasn't in a position to tell CMS whether to delay the launch of the site. "We're there to support our client," she said.

However, Andrew Slavitt, an executive at the company that owns QSSI, the technology contractor responsible for the site's online registration tool, said his company raised concerns about the lack of testing before the launch date.

"All of the concerns that we had, which were mostly related to testing and the inability to get as much testing as we would have liked, we expressed all of those concerns and risks to CMS throughout the project," he said.

Even so, Campbell told lawmakers CMS didn't start end-to-end testing of the system until about two weeks before the site was supposed to go live.

"It would have been better to have more time," Campbell said.

"Months would be nice," Slavitt told lawmakers.

Registration overwhelmed after launch

The site issues in the early days were the result of problems with the registration tool managed by QSSI, Campbell testified.

A bottleneck in online registration — the website's "front door" — "prevented the vast majority of users from accessing" the website in the days immediately after it launched, Campbell said.

Slavitt acknowledged that the site was "inundated by many more consumers than anticipated" and that the online registration tool was "overwhelmed."

But he said that's because the tool was hit by an unexpected volume of users because of a last-minute request from CMS.

"It appears that one of the reasons for the high concurrent volume at the registration system was a late decision requiring consumers to register for an account before they could browse for insurance products," Slavitt said in his prepared testimony. "This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the registration system that wouldn't have occurred if consumers could 'window shop' anonymously."

CMS officials, including Henry Chao, the agency's deputy director and deputy chief information officer, requested the change about two weeks before the launch, Campbell said.

Contractors say improvements made

Despite all the issues, contractors say they have made continuous improvements to the site since it launched earlier this month.

"We're seeing improvements day over day," Campbell told contractors. "We're continuing to run queries against our database. We're reviewing system logs, we're fine-tuning our servers. We're analyzing the code for anomalies and every day we're ... finding challenges in the system and making those corrections, as you would with any system that would go live."

She told lawmakers she anticipated problems would be fully resolved in enough time for users to sign up for health insurance by Dec. 15 — the deadline for full coverage to kick in Jan. 1.

Slavitt said he believed the problems with creating user accounts had already been fixed. "In the days that followed the launch, the QSSI team worked around the clock to enhance the ... tool to meet this unexpected demand," he testified.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, President Barack Obama announced he was bringing former budget official Jeff Zeints back to his administration to manage a "tech surge" to get the program back on track.

But Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee, said he's skeptical of the administration's plan.

"If 55 different contractors couldn't successfully build, test and run a website, how do we expect anyone else to be able do this?" Murphy said. "Given all these questions, Congress should press pause on the 'tech surge' and figure out what went wrong first, before throwing good money after bad and forcing the public to use a broken site."

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