WASHINGTON — Private contractors in charge of the new federal health-insurance website told a House committee Thursday that they did not have enough time to thoroughly test the system before its problem-riddled rollout early this month.
Executives of two of the four companies represented at the hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they needed more time than they were given to conduct the testing before the Oct. 1 launch.
Cheryl Campbell, senior vice-president of CGI, and Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president of Optum, said they would have liked “months” to test HealthCare.gov, rather than the two weeks or less they had.
The contractors — CGI Federal, Optum/QSSI, Serco and Equifax Workforce Solutions — were called to explain the problems in view of previous testimony as recently as September that things were going smoothly and the project appeared on track.
In fact, the website for the new health insurances exchanges, HealthCare.gov, crashed almost immediately after it opened, when millions of uninsured people were supposed to be able to log on and sign up for coverage that starts next year.
In opening statements Thursday, Republicans on the committee denounced the problems with the website as symptomatic of more widespread difficulties with the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare. Democrats said the site’s glitches should not detract from the overall success of the new law and charged that Republicans were less interested in fixing the problems than in undermining the law.
In one testy exchange during questioning of the company executives, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., derided the hearing as a “monkey court,” chastising Republicans for raising privacy concerns that he said were specious.
“You are trying to scare people so they don’t apply” for health insurance on the exchanges, he said. He said Republicans want to undermine public trust in the law in an effort to delay or repeal it. His outburst came after two Republicans alleged that the federal marketplace does not adequately protect people’s medical privacy.
President Obama’s new health care law requires that almost all Americans carry health insurance or face a fine starting in 2014. But the administration said Wednesday night that it would give people an extra six weeks — until March 31 — to obtain coverage before they incur a penalty. Officials denied that the extended deadline is related to the many technical problems with HealthCare.gov, saying instead that it is intended to clear up a timing confusion about the 2010 health care law.
Since the troubled launch, officials have identified other problems with the site, and many users have been locked out or encountered other errors. Officials have mounted what they termed a “tech surge,” enlisting top technology talent, to address the issues.
In written testimony submitted before the hearing, CGI, the main contractor building the website, took partial blame for some of the site’s defects. But the company also pointed the finger at a federal agency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which it said had ultimate responsibility for ensuring the project’s success.
CGI also blamed another contractor, Quality Software Services, Inc. (QSSI), a subsidiary of Optum based in Columbia, Md., for building the component that caused the initial bottleneck. QSSI has denied sole culpability for that part’s failure.
In response to questions at the hearing, CGI Vice President Cheryl Campbell said that no end-to-end testing of HealthCare.gov occurred until the last two weeks of September.
“I don’t have the results,” she said of the testing. She referred lawmakers CMS for that information.
Andrew Slavitt, an executive vice president of Optum, said the testing did not occur “until the last few days.” He said that “ideally, integrated testing would have occurred well before that date.”
Pressed on how long in advance of the launch such testing should be done, Slavitt replied, “Months would be nice.”
Campbell concurred. Asked when her company would have recommended starting the testing for HealthCare.gov, she said, “We would have loved to have had months.”
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., complained that the contractors raised unrealistic expectations about the website’s performance when they testified before the committee last month.
“You all came here and told us . . . it was good to go,” he said. “And it wasn’t.”
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Calif., noted that Campbell had not raised any red flags during her previous testimony.
“Did you ever tell this committee more testing was needed in order to make this work?” she asked.
“I don’t think I was asked that question,” Campbell replied.
Campbell later said that the system did crash during end-to-end testing. She said there were 200 failures during that testing.
Slavitt told the committee that “there were risks that we saw” in going ahead with the Oct. 1 launch, “and we passed those along, all along the way.”
A few minutes later, Slavitt said that “we did not make a recommendation” on whether to go live. “We simply made everyone aware of the risks that we saw.”
A Government Accountability Office report estimated in June that CGI Federal had received $70 million for its work on the website and QSSI had received $55 million to create the data hub.
But Campbell said Thursday that her company’s total contract was “about $290 million.” She said CGI has received $112 million so far. Slavitt said QSSI received “just under $85 million” for the data hub, which covers much — but not all — of the firm’s work for CMS. The site thus cost taxpayers upwards of $375 million.
“This is not about blame; it is about accountability,” Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the Energy Committee chairman, said in opening Thursday’s hearing. “This is more than a website problem.”
He charged that the Obama administration “appears allergic to transparency and continues to withhold enrollment ” for the health-insurance exchanges, whose rollout he said “has been nothing short of a disaster.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said, “The past three weeks of exchange messiness demonstrate that nobody can be a blind cheerleader for the Affordable Care Act.”
But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee, said the act “is an enormous success with one obvious exception: it has a poorly designed website.” He listed what he said were the significant accomplishments of the law so far and charged that Republicans are uninterested in fixing the problems.
Rather, he said, they are “attempting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act,” going so far this month as to shut down the government to press their demands to defund, delay or otherwise curtail the program.
In an opening statement, Pallone called the hearing “another cynical effort by the Republicans” to attack the health care law. “The Republicans don’t have clean hands coming here,” the New Jersey Democrat said. They are not trying to make the law work better but to “use the website as an excuse” for continued attempts to defund or repeal the act.
Saying that the nearly three-week shutdown cost the nation $24 billion, he scoffed at GOP arguments that they were concerned about the costs of the Affordable Care Act.
It was not just Republicans who took the contractors to task. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., issued a harsh admonition to those vendors who testified before the committee a few weeks before the website’s launch and who suggested then, she said, that “HHS was doing an excellent job of testing the product.”
“Three weeks later, here we are,” she said. “We need to hear today exactly what they’re doing to fix these issues.”
But there was perhaps a hint of sarcasm when she thanked her Republican colleagues for holding the hearing. “I’m so happy . . . and touched, really, today to hear the majority express these concerns about making the ACA work better, and I really hope it’s legitimate.”
Even as Republicans bemoaned the problems dogging the new health care law, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., — the House’s longest-serving member — made a point of putting its rocky start in perspective.
“I remind my colleagues that the last perfect law came off the top of Mount Sinai with Moses, written on a stone tablet by the hand of God,” Dingell declared. “Note nothing so good has happened since. I urge us to use our best efforts then to see to it that this new law goes into effect and works, and that we carry out our responsibility to the American people.”
In response to questions from Upton, Campbell, the senior vice president at CGI Federal, said it was not her company’s decision to make on whether the website should have gone live on Oct. 1. “It was CMS’s decision,” she said. Asked whether the firm recommended against going live, she said, “It was not our position to do so.”
She acknowledged that getting through the registration system has been tough for some people, but she said the system will be fixed and that people will be able to enroll by Dec. 15, the deadline to sign up for coverage that starts Jan. 1.
To follow developments of the Affordable Care Act, go to www.unionleader.com/aca