UPDATE 3-Contractors describe scant pre-launch testing of US healthcare site

Reuters

(Corrects company background in third last paragraph to makeclear CGI Federal is a unit of Canada's CGI Group Inc, notCeladon Group, as earlier sent)

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) - The Obama administrationlaunched its troubled healthcare insurance website after only aminimum of crucial system-wide testing, despite contractorswarning officials repeatedly about performance risks, acongressional panel heard on Thursday.

Witnesses said the administration did not conduct end-to-endtesting of the system's technology backbone until just the twoweeks before one of the lynchpins of President Barack Obama'slandmark healthcare policy opened to consumers on Oct. 1.

At a U.S. House of Representatives oversight committeehearing, contractors also blamed the administration for alast-minute design change that has been identified as a flawresponsible for leading millions of visitors into systembottlenecks.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicareand Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency implementing the onlinemarketplace, acknowledged the contractors' testimony.

"Due to a compressed timeframe the system wasn't testedenough," Bataille said. "What's important to realize is that weare putting in place a much more robust performance testingsystem now."

The glitches, delays and errors that have characterized Healthcare.gov are a growing concern for Republicans andDemocrats alike. The administration is racing to solve theproblems in time for millions of uninsured Americans to enrollfor coverage and begin receiving health benefits from Jan. 1, asstipulated by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called"Obamacare."

CMS said on Thursday that about 700,000 applications havebeen submitted so far for U.S. healthcare coverage through theexchanges.

"We would certainly have liked to see as much time aspossible for end-to-end testing," said Andrew Slavitt, executivevice president for the parent of CGI Federal and QualitySoftware Services Inc (QSSI), a unit of health insurerUnitedHealth Group.

QSSI produced the federal data hub and a software tool forcreating online consumer accounts, which was at the center ofearly logjam problems. The design change involved turning offanonymous browsing and requiring online visitors to createaccounts before researching health plan information anddetermining their eligibility for federal subsidies to help paypremiums.

MONTHS OF TESTING PREFERABLE

Slavitt and Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president for CGIFederal, the main contractor, said months of testing would havebeen preferable for a big new IT system but that the testingschedule for Healthcare.gov was determined by CMS.

The rollout went ahead after QSSI said it made CMS aware ofits concerns throughout the system's development, but Slavittwas not aware of any response from the agency.

"The concerns that we had, which were mostly related totesting and the inability to get as much testing as we'd like -we expressed all of those concerns and risks to CMS," he said."My understanding is they understood those and were working onthem. But I don't know further."

Healthcare.gov is the online web portal for a federal healthinsurance marketplace that contractors described as one of themost complicated large-scale information technology (IT) systemsin existence.

The 4-1/2 hour hearing before the House Energy and CommerceCommittee marked the first full-length public airing over theproblematic rollout, giving lawmakers the chance to piecetogether what went wrong at the beginning of a six-monthenrollment period expected to draw at least 7 million enrolleesfor 2014.

"This is not about blame - this is about accountability,transparency, and fairness for the American public. The brokenpromises are many," said Representative Fred Upton, the MichiganRepublican who chairs the committee.

"We still don't know the real picture as the administrationappears allergic to transparency and continues to withholdenrollment figures," Upton said.

Most of the criticism has come from Republicans who havelong opposed the law, Obama's most significant domestic policyachievement, as an unwarranted expansion of the federalgovernment.

Republican John Shimkus of Illinois demanded the names ofadministration officials involved in decision making: "I wouldventure to guess the regular bureaucrats did their job. Thepolitical appointees manipulated."

Democrats largely dismissed the Republican rhetoric aspartisan politics, saying the committee's goal should be to"fix, not nix" the law.

"The Affordable Care Act is an enormous success with oneobvious exception: it has a poorly designed website," saidRepresentative Henry Waxman of California, the lead Democrat onthe panel.

But some Democrats also expressed disapproval.Representative Anna Eshoo of California said it was "a lameexcuse" for contractors and the administration to claim thathigh volumes of visitors were responsible for problems.

"Taxpayers paid you a lot of money and you're essentiallysaying to us that everything's alright when it's not," Eshootold the CGI executive Campbell after she assured lawmakers thatthe problems would be fixed in time for consumers to enroll forbenefits beginning Jan. 1.

"We anticipate that the system, as we have seen, isimproving day over day..." Campbell said at the hearing. CGIFederal is a unit of Canada's CGI Group Inc.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the WhiteHouse have largely declined to disclose information about theproblems plaguing the system. It cost nearly $400 million tobuild, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The House oversight focus will switch next week to theadministration as Health and Human Services Secretary KathleenSebelius appears before Upton's panel and her lieutenant, CMSAdministrator Marilyn Tavenner testifies before the House Waysand Means Committee. (Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Lewis Krauskopf;Editing by Karey Van Hall and Grant McCool)

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