Contractors describe scant pre-launch testing of U.S. healthcare site

Reuters

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, or CMS, the agency implementing theonline marketplace, acknowledged the contractors' testimony.

"Due to a compressed time frame, 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."

She also told reporters that in-house "business decisions"prompted CMS to require online visitors to create accountsbefore shopping for health plans and prompted the agency toassume the key role of system integrator for Healthcare.gov.

The glitches, delays and errors that have characterized thewebsite are a growing concern for Republicans and Democratsalike. The administration is racing to solve the problems intime for millions of uninsured Americans to enroll for coverageand begin receiving health benefits from Jan. 1, as stipulatedby the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called "Obamacare."

CMS said on Thursday that about 700,000 applications hadbeen 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, or 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 information technology system butthat the testing schedule for Healthcare.gov was determined byCMS.

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 IT systems in 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.

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.

Outside the hearing, Representative Darrell Issa ofCalifornia and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, bothRepublicans, raised the possibility of a subpoena to compel theadministration to release documents related to the cost andperformance of Healthcare.gov after its first nine days ofoperation. They asked HHS for the information by Oct. 23, butthe department did not comply.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the pairsaid Issa's House Oversight and Government Reform Committeewould consider using "compulsory process" if the informationwere not provided by 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Monday.

In a statement to Reuters, HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peterssaid, "We have told the committee repeatedly that we intend toaccommodate their interest in better understanding our effortsto implement the ACA.

"The committee sent us an extremely broad request fordocuments on October 10 - while the government was still shutdown - and asked that we produce these materials within twoweeks. Since the government reopened on October 17, we have beenengaged in discussions with the committee to better understandand prioritize their requests," Peters 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 the decision making: "Iwould venture to guess the regular bureaucrats did their job.The political 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 top Democrat onthe Energy and Commerce Committee.

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

"Taxpayers paid you a lot of money and you're essentiallysaying to us that everything's all right 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 House oversight focus will switch next week to theadministration as Sebelius appears before Upton's panel and herlieutenant, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, testifies beforethe House Ways and Means Committee.