Healthcare contractors point finger at Obama administration

Cheryl Campbell, Senior Vice President of CGI Federal; Andrew Slavitt, Executive Vice President for Optum/QSSI; Lynn Spellecy, corporate counsel for Equifax Workforce Solutions and John Lau, program director for Serco are pictured at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in Washington, DC on 24 October 2013 One contractor said many of the bottlenecks could be attributed to a late decision on the structure of the site

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Contractors who worked on the much-maligned US healthcare website have told lawmakers the Obama administration must share the blame for its glitches.

One senior executive told a congressional panel that the federal government was "the ultimate responsible party".

The panel also heard that two contractors wanted more testing before the 1 October launch of the website.

The Obama administration is in damage-control mode over the troubled rollout.

At a health centre in Arizona on Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said technicians and administration officials were working "24-7" to fix glitches in the website and its technical underpinnings.

And she dismissed Republicans' calls for her to step down over the problematic healthcare rollout, saying those critics "do not want this programme to work in this first place".

Amid the fallout, the White House late on Wednesday announced it would push back by six weeks the healthcare law's requirement for individuals to buy insurance or face a tax penalty.

No 'clean hands'

Thursday's testimony before the House energy and commerce committee began with Republican legislators arguing that the website flaws were part of wider problems in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which is commonly known as Obamacare.

"The American people deserve something that works, or start over," Representative Tim Murphy said, suggesting that the law be suspended until the problems are fixed.

Start Quote

Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas”

End Quote Anna Eshoo Democractic congresswoman

The website is one part of the larger law, which includes increased requirements for insurance firms, a requirement that individuals carry insurance or pay a tax penalty, and subsidies for those who qualify to assist in the cost of the insurance.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office previously said about seven million people would gain coverage through the federal website and others run by some states during the first year of operation.

Democrats have lamented the technical issues but have defended the law, while criticising Republican attempts to undermine it.

"Republicans don't have clean hands coming here," Democratic Representative Frank Pallone said.

The website's glitches were politically overshadowed by a 16-day government shutdown, which began after Republicans tried to gut the law through budgetary brinkmanship in Congress.

On Thursday, Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice-president of the Canadian-firm CGI, which created the front-end portion of the website, said that overwhelming interest from consumers had triggered the website problems.

"No amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature" Ms Campbell said.

But she also blamed administration officials, saying the health department should have served as the "quarterback" on the project and was the "ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance".

Andy Slavitt of QSSI, which created several elements of the online healthcare exchange, said a late decision to require consumers to create accounts before they could browse insurance plans contributed to the slow, malfunctioning website.

"This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the registration system that wouldn't have occurred if consumers could window-shop anonymously," Mr Slavitt said.

Republican Representative Joe Pitts questioned this decision, pointing out that "window-shopping" was widely used in e-commerce, including in another government healthcare website for the elderly.

"Who made that decision? When was it made? Why was it made?" Mr Pitts asked during the hearing.

Republican Representative Fred Upton said the Obama administration "appears allergic to transparency and continues to withhold enrolment figures" for the healthcare website.

"We still don't know the real picture," he said. "This is not about blame - this is about accountability, transparency, and fairness for the American public."

And some Democrats on the panel said they were frustrated with both the government's and contractors' handling of the situation.

Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents the Silicon Valley area, said it was a "lame excuse" to blame the website's problems on a crush of visitors.

"Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas," Ms Eshoo said. "ProFlowers doesn't crash on Valentine's Day."

And Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette said: "These problems need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed fast."

Ms Sebelius and other government officials are set to testify in front of legislators in a hearing next week.

She was ridiculed earlier this month during an appearance on The Daily Show when the host Jon Stewart pulled out a laptop and said: "I'm going try and download every movie ever made, and you're going to try and sign up for Obamacare and we'll see which happens first."

In response to the outcry over the technical issues, the administration will begin daily status briefings on the system, starting on Thursday.

On Wednesday, US health officials admitted the online system did not get enough testing before going live on 1 October, especially at higher volumes.

The health law also allowed individual states to set up their own online insurance exchanges.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia went with this option - those websites have not reported so many problems.

A woman looks at the insurance exchange internet site showing a "Please wait" page, in this 1 October 2013 file photo in Washington, DC

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  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Are you watching Britain?

    When the American Healthcare Insurance giants dissect the NHS, this is how those who cannot afford a policy will obtain medical assistance in the UK too...

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    We should be grateful the problems have become visible so early!
    If even enrollment is so disastrous in the Govt run system- with the lack of accountability and transparency becoming clear early on- just imagine how catastrophically the actual system will perform.

    The business of Govt is not business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    100. Chris A

    Obama is no LBJ, who would have taken on Lieberman and Baucus. Obama was a mouthpiece (an excellent one) but did none of the heavy legislative lifting. He couldn't get any republicans on board. Big mistake. We've all been paying ever since.

    Once he lost his majority he was stopped dead. Runs everything like a campaign, including the exchange rollout.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    98. Ability? Obama the first since Lyndon Johnston to even get close to 'healthcare for all' - Your rail on Obama sounds like Lucy. Joe Lieberman and Max Baucus killed Obama's public option as shills of their insurance company sponsors!

    Anyway, Bush Jr's misinformation mantra of 'keep saying it until it is so' rings throughout these threads. My condolences to the hapless US public.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    97. KingRichard

    CGI has a very foolish client. No one CMS person in charge, constant changes. Last 75 pages of regs released at end of August. Anyone who rolls out a system like this -- large and critical -- with only 2 weeks' testing is insane.

    Sebelius is really chief saleswoman, out on the road trying to enroll young people. Don't see Obama ending that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    96. Chris A

    "the issue is 'will' (ethics over profits) not the mechanics..."

    Obama never had the will much less ability.

    We are nowhere near being ready to jump into another system, especially when most Americans don't even know what our options are. Need to assess them and weigh tradeoffs.

    Not a lot of confidence in govt.'s ability to pull it off, especially after this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    CGI isn't looking too good. Don't they realize that their business is being evaluated by every government on the planet? And, Madem Secretary really isn't qualified to do this job. The same way Brown botched the Katrina response, this lady should resign and save her boss a lot of grief.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    95. Interesting. The GOP argument is transition always, yet all are transitioning into Medicare at some point and that administration is a fraction of insurance company & HMO cost - 17% of GDP. The issue is 'will' (ethics over profits) not the mechanics and as before, only 15% of the population remain to be signed up for Obamacare, to result in the full population registered for health care.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    93. Chris A

    Yes, it works; however, we have this rather large issue. It's called "transition". You don't just flip a switch. Takes more than ethics.

    We couldn't even build the backend to a new enrollment website. The eligibility step, alone, involved reconciling enrollee data with 12 different govt. databases.

    Not easy to eliminate "profit "when insurance industry is 7% of our GDP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    They should stop squabbling over who made the website break, and start talking about how the government is forcing its citizens to buy a product (and an expensive one at that) by threatening them with fines if they don't. Obama has abandoned the very principles that made America the "land of the free". Health insurance isn't a right, it's a priveledge. Get over it Obama. Worst president ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    91. Did you mean conversion to single payer for 300 million? It works for millions all over the world as administration is by simple regional segmentation. Without for-profit as the driver, basic ethics take over and efficiency is hugely improved. The $1.3 trillion pa profit in US healthcare would provide investment needed to optimize the whole system and make long term preventive care a reality

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    90. 'Obama refused to negotiate on "principle", wouldn't agree to a delay of the individual mandate. For a system to be delayed anyway.'

    The whako tea party demanded the delay (for no good reason) so that they and the GOP could cite the delay in 2014 election hustings. Obamacare fully functional next year favors the Democrats position.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    87. Correction:

    Ever imagine the conversation to a single payer for 300+ *million* people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    83. UnCivil_in_NY

    Every time there's a big problem, the president learns about it when we do. He also reacts as we do, with surprise and disdain. He instructs someone else to fix it.

    Yes, it's his legacy. The problem is he actually has to earn it.

    88. Art16

    Obama refused to negotiate on "principle", wouldn't agree to a delay of the individual mandate. For a system to be delayed anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    87. Its easy, really - Medicare for everyone, but everyone to fund/participate! Obamacare will get the participation and the next Democrat administration's task is to get the insurance companies and HMO's out of the system so that current 'profits' (sic) are plowed back into the system reducing costs for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    One other thought to add to my comment #75. How can such a highly touted and politically hot health care plan be so important that it could have taken the US into default and be so ignored in its implementation. It is evident to me that the proponents of the healthcare plan do not care about it enough to do their job to see that its implementation would be flawless. Junior High Obama flunks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    84. Chris A

    Single-payer is an option. Most in US don't even understand how it is structured. They often confuse UK's for Canada's systems. They just want to walk in, get treated and not pay huge bills.

    Problem is complex existing system. Ever imagine the conversation to a single payer for a 300+ people? Cannot build a new system. Would have to retrofit Medicaid or -care systems

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    My name is not you. It is Vera Hummel McHale. That formula was a gift for the those who sacrificed to end a world war. It pre measured the amount of heat that would come from electron transfers. It was a gift from God to my country through me. No pope should be a world leader of a government. No country should allow infiltration via education of children.

  • Comment number 85.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    81. The point made valid - single payer requires participation by all so that the horrors* of the US system are not realized. With all contributing to a homogeneous system there is sufficient ongoing investment to maintain long term first class results ignoring pre-existing condition situations and aging.

    * for-profit: skims off the easy money; promotes rationing; avoids risk; is unethical.


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