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 HealthCare.gov 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 HealthCare.gov 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.