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HealthCare.Gov developers tell Congress crucial tests were shirked

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Obama administration waited until the last minute to test the main Obamacare website and refused to ask for a delay when hiccups arose, government contractors testified to Congress on Thursday as they tried to explain why the rollout of the insurance exchanges has been so rocky.

Executives from lead contractor CGI Federal and three other vendors who worked on HealthCare.gov told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the federal agency in charge seemed to have assembled a flawed puzzle from the intact pieces they provided, and didn't go through the months of testing that should have accompanied such a complex system, they said.

"We didn't see the full kind of integrated end-to-end system testing that you're talking about until the couple of days leading up to the launch," said Andrew Slavitt, an executive vice president of the company that owns Quality Software Services Inc. (QSSI).

The messy rollout is forcing Democrats and the Obama administration to reconsider enforcement of the law's individual mandate, which requires most Americans to get health insurance.

Late Wednesday, the White House said it will not penalize anyone who attempts to sign up for coverage before March 31, a shift from the initial deadline of Feb. 15, and officials have vowed to work around the clock to clean up problems with the website, which is the main way for consumers to purchase insurance on the health care exchanges.

Republicans said it will take more than a quick fix.

"This is more than a website problem. And frankly, the website should have been the easy part," said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. "I'm also concerned about what happens next. Will enrollment glitches become provider payment glitches? Will patients show up at their doctor's office or hospitals to be told that maybe they're — they aren't covered or even in the system?"

The four-hour grilling on Capitol Hill was the first congressional hearing on Obamacare's problems since the Oct. 1 rollout of the website.

Republicans tried to have Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testify, but she said she had a prior engagement to promote Obamacare in Phoenix by visiting a call center and speaking with "navigators" charged with helping people enroll. She said she will testify next week.

That left executives from the companies, which also included Equifax and Serco Inc., to defend their work.

They acknowledged that they were disappointed by the website's performance and sympathized with users but downplayed their own company's responsibilities. They said they hoped the situation would improve soon but declined to estimate when all of the bugs would be fixed.

The contractors said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) oversaw the full assembly of HealthCare.gov — a website that was supposed to help residents of 36 states buy private insurance under the Affordable Care Act but has been riddled with long waiting periods and other snags.

It was up to CMS, they said, to decide whether to let the online portal go live or to push for a delay.

The Obama administration forged ahead with its plans, but users immediately had trouble registering before they could shop for coverage. Weeks later, users reported other hiccups further into the enrollment process.

"Obviously, due to a compressed time frame, the system wasn't tested enough," CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille told reporters on a conference call, later citing the complexity of the mission.

At the hearing, Republicans and even some Democrats asked how the website could be so sloppy in light of mid-September assurances that it was ready for launch.

"If there was a silver-bullet answer to that question, I'd give it to you," said Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal. "It is a combination of a number of things. It is not just a component of what CGI's responsible for. It's the end-to-end aspect that is the challenge."

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California offered the strongest criticism of the website's performance among committee Democrats.

"There are thousands of websites that carry far more traffic," she told the contractors. "So I think that's really kind of a lame excuse. Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas, and ProFlowers doesn't crash on Valentine's Day."

But Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., New Jersey Democrat, called the proceedings a "monkey court" and said Republicans were "trying to scare people so they don't apply and so therefore the legislation gets delayed, or the Affordable Care Act gets defunded or it's repealed."

Other Democrats said Republicans were being hypocritical by showing concern about the efficacy of a program that Republicans detest. They circulated a memo about Republican attempts to fix the Medicare drug benefit program's early glitches during George W. Bush's presidency.

"I remind my colleagues the last perfect law came off the top of Mount Sinai with Moses, written on a stone tablet by the hand of God," said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. "Nothing so good has happened since."

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