WASHINGTON—Four contractors tasked with building the government’s healthcare exchange website repeatedly pointed on Thursday to the Obama administration as the source of decision-making and problems related to the troubled launch of the Affordable Care Act—aka Obamacare—on Oct. 1.
The testimony came during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in which members of both parties tried to find out why glitches and crashes beset consumers when open enrollment began at healthcare.gov earlier this month. The witnesses’ most common response was to point to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, a contractor that has received $112 million for its services and could end up with as much as $290 million, said the company has “a team working around the clock” to correct problems with the website. She told lawmakers that CGI’s part of the project was working properly before the launch, but the integrated system was not tested until the last two weeks in September, and CGI did not even get the results: “You’d have to go to CMS.”
Scores of people have experienced problems with the federal exchange since it went online Oct. 1, including not being able to view available healthcare plans. The decision not to allow anonymous shopping came from CMS, witnesses said, but they could not confirm who at the agency made the final call a month before the rollout.
Many Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of “gotcha politics” and trying to “not fix but nix” the president’s signature domestic achievement. But several, including Reps. Gene Green, D-Texas, and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., also pressed the contractors for answers. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who represents Silicon Valley, said the contractors’ written statements provided no answers and that blaming the website’s troubles on heavy traffic was a “lame excuse.”
“This is 2013,” Eshoo said. “Amazon and Ebay don’t crash the day before Christmas, and ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day.”
Campbell confirmed the system crashed shortly after midnight on Oct. 1, reportedly with only about 2,000 people trying to use it.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said he’s “frustrated” and called the law’s rollout “unacceptable,” but “I remind my colleagues the last perfect law came off of Mount Sinai with Moses.” Dingell said both parties should work together to fix the problems, because “a slow website is better than the alternative where healthcare is only for the privileged few.”
Several Democrats noted the registration problems the government experienced while implementing Medicare Part D, calling the issues a “disaster” at the time. They touted the law as a “good program,” even though only nine Democrats voted for it in 2003.
In addition to the technical issues with healthcare.gov, lawmakers also debated—at times heatedly—the threat of violating privacy. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, displayed lines of code from the site that read: “You have no expectation of privacy regarding any communication or data transiting or stored on this information system.”
Barton claimed the disclosure, not visible to the public, meant the website violated HIPAA regulations, but Democrats accused Barton of scare tactics, because no one has to input medical information on the site. However, no one explained what the line meant or if other, non-medical personal information would be harvested.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., expressed concerns about HIPPA violations when witness John Lau, program director at Serco, acknowledged that about 2,000 people at his company have access to applicant information.
The witnesses defended their prior testimony to the committee, in which they told lawmakers everything was on track for a successful launch. But Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president at Quality Software Services Inc., a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, said his organization warned the administration of potential problems in the days leading up to the rollout. Slavitt said, “We absolutely take responsibility for those initial problems,” but all the witnesses agreed they needed months, not days, to work out the kinks during testing.
The Obama administration hopes to enroll 7 million people in the program by March. It won’t say how many have successfully enrolled, but the problems have undoubtedly put numbers behind schedule. Campbell told lawmakers on Thursday the federal exchange should be able to operate at full capacity by Dec. 15.
Many Republicans openly questioned whether the issues could be resolved and said the situation illustrated why the federal government shouldn’t be involved with people’s healthcare. At a $500 million cost to taxpayers, said Rep. Timothy Murphy, R-Pa., “The American people have been stuck with the ultimate cash for clunkers—only they got the clunkers and not the cash.”
No CMS or HHS employees testified during Thursday’s hearing, but Secretary Kathleen Sebelius—amid increasing calls for her resignation—is scheduled to appear before the committee on Oct. 30. This week the White House announced CMS would begin holding daily briefings to update the public on the website’s progress.