Fiery Hearing on Obamacare Sheds Little Light on Website Failings

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: Senior vice president of CGI Federal Cheryl Campbell (L) and group executive vice president for Optum/QSSI Andrew Slavitt testify during a hearing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act before the House Energy and Commerce Committee October 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Developers who helped to build the website for people to buy health insurance under Obamacare testified before the panel on what had gone wrong to cause the technical difficulties in accessing the site.
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
Oct. 24, 2013, 1:34 p.m.

The House hear­ing Thursday on the Af­ford­able Care Act’s on­line mar­ket­place was a heated blame game that il­lu­min­ated clear ten­sions between web­site con­tract­ors and the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices.

Re­pub­lic­ans on the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee also turned the nearly five-hour hear­ing in­to an­oth­er poin­ted polit­ic­al at­tack on Obama­care, blam­ing Pres­id­ent Obama for the deeply flawed web­site run by CMS and char­ging that it vi­ol­ates fed­er­al pri­vacy laws.

“The pres­id­ent doesn’t un­der­stand that the skip­per is re­spons­ible for everything done on his ship,” said Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, em­path­iz­ing with web­site con­tract­ors who test­i­fied about the prob­lems that have plagued Health­ since it was launched Oct. 1.

The key wit­nesses for the con­tract­ors main­tained that their parts of the web­site were tested and ready to go weeks be­fore the launch, but prob­lems arose when the dif­fer­ent com­pon­ents were in­teg­rated.

“On Septem­ber 10 we were quite op­tim­ist­ic our por­tion of the sys­tem would work suc­cess­fully when the site went live,” said Cheryl Camp­bell, seni­or vice pres­id­ent of CGI Fed­er­al, which de­veloped the fed­er­al web­site’s soft­ware. Camp­bell ar­gued that CGI ful­filled all of its con­trac­tu­al ob­lig­a­tions to CMS.

Some prob­lems were iden­ti­fied in end-to-end test­ing be­fore the launch, and all of those is­sues were passed on to of­fi­cials at CMS, said An­drew Slavitt, group ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent for Optum/QSSI, one of the con­tract­ors test­ing CGI’s code.

“All con­cerns and test­ing we had were shared with CMS,” Slavitt said. “My un­der­stand­ing is they un­der­stood those and were work­ing on it.”

But Camp­bell and Slavitt, along with two oth­er con­tract­ors who test­i­fied — Lynn Spel­lecy, cor­por­ate coun­sel for Equifax Work­force Solu­tions, and John Lau, pro­gram dir­ect­or at Serco — all said they made no re­com­mend­a­tions to CMS that the site be delayed.

“CMS has the ul­ti­mate de­cision” on the launch date, Camp­bell said. “It is not our po­s­i­tion to tell our cli­ent wheth­er they should go live or not go live.”

Who ex­actly made the de­cision to stick with the Oct. 1 launch date and what con­cerns they had are still un­clear, but both Camp­bell and Slavitt ad­mit­ted the site would have be­nefited from ad­di­tion­al end-to-end test­ing.

“Months would have been nice,” Slavitt said, rather than the two weeks they say were spent at the end of Septem­ber. Camp­bell agreed, though she in­dic­ated you can nev­er really have enough test­ing for a pro­ject of this mag­nitude.

Re­pub­lic­ans were in­tent on pin­point­ing the names of CMS of­fi­cials re­spons­ible for de­cisions re­gard­ing the site launch. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., de­man­ded that Camp­bell name her points of con­tact at the agency.

“Give me a name,” Shimkus in­sisted when Camp­bell re­spon­ded that there were a num­ber of people. “Give me an­oth­er name.”¦ Give me an­oth­er name,” he said.

“What I’m go­ing to en­cour­age my col­leagues to do is ask for names be­cause this amorph­ous CMS is — there are people there,” Shimkus said. “And I’m go­ing to ven­ture to guess that the reg­u­lar bur­eau­crats did their job, [while] the polit­ic­al ap­pointees ma­nip­u­lated the sys­tem to hide data they didn’t want the pub­lic to know. And we’re go­ing to find out who that is be­cause that’s the crux of this prob­lem.”

Rep. Joe Bar­ton, R-Texas, con­ten­ded that a piece of code on the in­sur­ance-ex­change site vi­ol­ates pri­vacy stand­ards in the Health In­sur­ance Port­ab­il­ity and Ac­count­ab­il­ity Act (HIPAA).

“We’re telling every Amer­ic­an if you sign up for this, or you even at­tempt to sign up, you have no reas­on­able ex­pect­a­tion of pri­vacy,” Bar­ton told Camp­bell. “That is a dir­ect con­tra­dic­tion of HIPAA, and you know it.”

Rep. Frank Pal­lone, D-N.J., ar­gued that Bar­ton was us­ing scare tac­tics to dis­cour­age people from en­rolling for in­sur­ance un­der the ACA. “HIPAA only ap­plies when there’s health in­form­a­tion be­ing provided,” Pal­lone said. “That’s not in play here today.”

Ten­sions es­cal­ated when Bar­ton asked Pal­lone to yield for a ques­tion, and the New Jer­sey Demo­crat replied, “I will not yield to this mon­key court!”

Demo­crats had con­cerns about the web­site as well. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Cal­if., said it was a “lame ex­cuse” to say Health­ has been crash­ing be­cause too many people want to sign up. “Amazon and eBay don’t crash the week be­fore Christ­mas,” she said. “And Pro­Flowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day.”

However, while Re­pub­lic­an said the web­site’s fail­ures re­flect prob­lems with the health care law it­self, the Demo­crat­ic motto was “let’s fix it, not nix it.”

“The prob­lems are not sur­pris­ing giv­en there’s been con­sid­er­able ob­struc­tion to pro­gress from the be­gin­ning,” said Rep. John Din­gell, D-Mich., re­fer­ring to Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts to dis­mantle Obama­care. “There are prob­lems. But we have time to fix it. So let’s work to­geth­er and get this mat­ter re­solved so that the people be­ne­fit and do not suf­fer.”

CMS Ad­min­is­trat­or Mar­ilyn Taven­ner is sched­uled to ap­pear be­fore the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee on Tues­day.

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