Is the Congressional Inquiry on Obamacare a ‘Monkey Court’?

The latest from Congress’ hearing on the flawed health care website.

Senior vice president of CGI Federal Cheryl Campbell, group executive vice president for Optum/QSSI Andrew Slavitt, corporate counsel for Equifax Workforce Solutions Lynn Spellecy, and program director for Serco John Lau are sworn in 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.
National Journal
Oct. 24, 2013, 6:39 a.m.

How angry do mem­bers of Con­gress want to ap­pear about the Health­ bugs?

Thursday’s House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee hear­ing with sev­er­al ex­ec­ut­ives from the big con­tract­ors be­hind the site gives us a peek.

Or, as Rep. Frank Pal­lone, D-N.J., so grace­fully put it: Wel­come to the “mon­key court.”

The up­shot from the con­tract­ors: It’s not our fault.

They said their pieces of the Health­ puzzle worked fine when tested in­de­pend­ently, and only crashed once the sys­tem was tested from front to back.

Con­tract­ors also said the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices (CMS) — not their com­pan­ies — de­cided to launch any­way, des­pite flaws dis­covered in the test­ing. An­drew Slavitt, from QSSI, which built part of the sys­tem, said his com­pany in­formed CMS that more test­ing was needed.

What ap­peared in the testi­mon­ies were the com­plex­it­ies of sev­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors work­ing on sep­ar­ate, yet ul­ti­mately in­teg­rated sys­tems — with each con­tract­or seem­ingly blind (or par­tially blind) to oth­er as­pects of the web­site con­struc­tion. What came next was oc­ca­sion­ally ob­tuse polit­ic­al grand­stand­ing. With very few an­swers as to what ex­actly went wrong with the web­site. And the an­swers aren’t simple. “Now, I rep­res­ent Sil­ic­on Val­ley, and I find this very hard to fol­low,” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Cal­if., said.

Here are some high­lights, which we’ll be up­dat­ing throughout the hear­ing.

Up­date (1:14 p.m.): CGI’s Camp­bell ac­know­ledged re­ports that in­sur­ance com­pan­ies are get­ting in­ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion about the ap­plic­ants who can get through Health­ ““ for ex­ample, de­pend­ents com­ing though as mul­tiple spouses.

“We have un­covered a num­ber of those scen­ari­os — not sig­ni­fic­ant, but a num­ber of them “¦ Most of them are isol­ated, not across the board for all in­surers,” Camp­bell said.

She said CGI is flag­ging the er­rors as they arise and work­ing to sort out the prob­lem.

Up­date (12:07 p.m.): Rep. Steve Scal­ise, R-Louisi­ana, says that, to prove a point about the di­fi­cult of nav­ig­at­ing Health­, he went T.V. shop­ping on Amazon dur­ing the hear­ing. He says he pretty eas­ily found thou­sands of op­tions. Health­, not so easy.


Up­date (11:50 a.m.): House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dar­rell Issa an­nounced Tues­day he would in­vest­ig­ate why CGI was in­struc­ted at the last minute to dis­able the an­onym­ous shop­ping fea­ture and re­quire con­sumers to cre­ate pro­files be­fore view­ing health in­sur­ance plan prices.

Rep. G.K. But­ter­field, D-North Car­o­lina, read por­tions of Issa’s let­ter, and told Camp­bell thatIssa said he has mount­ing evid­ence that there were White House polit­ic­al con­sid­er­a­tions in­volved in the de­cision.

Issa’s of­fice con­firmed Thursday they were briefed last week by CGI of­fi­cials. Camp­bell cast doubt on Issa’s let­ter.

“I don’t be­lieve that mem­bers of CGI ac­tu­ally made those state­ments dir­ectly in that man­ner,” Camp­bell said. “I think they may have been taken out of con­text but I’d have to get back to you on that and no the White House has not giv­en us dir­ect in­struc­tions.”

The last-minute change re­quired test­ing, Slavitt said, and QSSI in­formed CMS.

“We in­formed CMS that more test­ing was ne­ces­sary, we in­formed CMS of the pieces of the sys­tem that had is­sues that we had tested,” Slavitt said.


Up­ate (11:46 a.m.): CGI Fed­er­al built the bulk of Health­, which has been plagued by tech­nic­al prob­lems since its launch on Oct. 1. CGI’s Cheryl Camp­bell con­firmed that the sys­tem crashed dur­ing a test that sim­u­lated only a few hun­dred people try­ing to log in.

“There was an end-to-end test that oc­curred, and the sys­tem did crash with about that num­ber,” she said.

But CGI said the prob­lems with Health­ aren’t its fault. When CGI tested its piece of the site in­de­pend­ently, it worked fine, Camp­bell said. Only dur­ing “end-to-end test­ing” were prob­lems dis­covered.


Up­date (11:32 a.m.): Rep. Mike Ro­gers, R-Michigan., pushed CGI’s Cheryl Camp­bell on pos­sible se­cur­ity prob­lems with Health­

“You don’t need to have willy-nilly code. You can have the best code in the world. Every cy­ber-se­cur­ity ex­pert un­der­stands that when you in­tro­duce new code, it has oth­er im­plic­a­tions on a broad­er sys­tem. Even bey­ond your bor­ders. That’s what we are wor­ried—we are not wor­ried you are put­ting bad code in. We are wor­ried you may ac­ci­dent­ally, as we know with the func­tion­al­ity of your sys­tem doesn’t work, it would be only lo­gic­al to con­clude if the func­tion­al­ity of the sys­tem doesn’t work when it all came to­geth­er, you can­not com­pose se­cur­ity.”


Up­date (10:58 a.m.): This ex­change touches on the theme of this whole hear­ing. That each con­tract­or stands by their work, and the fail­ure is in the ag­greg­ate.

Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Penn.: Why doesn’t Health­ work prop­erly?

CGI’s Cheryl Camp­bell: Sir, if there is with a sil­ver bul­let to an­swer — if there was a sil­ver bul­let to an­swer that ques­tion, I would. It is not just a com­pon­ent of what CGI is re­spons­ible for. It’s the end-to-end as­pect that is chal­lenged. There’s com­pon­ents across the en­tire sys­tem — across the eco­sys­tem that can have an im­pact.

Rep. Pitts: Mr. Slavitt?

Andy Slavitt, Group Ex­ec­ut­ive Vice-Pres­id­ent at Optum: We ab­so­lutely take ac­count­ab­il­ity for those first days when our tool was part of the is­sue in terms of be­ing able to handle all of the un­ex­pec­ted volume. And we ab­so­lutely will take ac­count­ab­il­ity for help­ing in any way we can to help this pro­ject go for­ward. For­tu­nately today, the data ser­vices hub and the ei­dm tool are per­form­ing well.


Chair­man Fred Up­ton: “Did any­one re­com­mend delay­ing the launch?” He then asked for raised hands from the wit­nesses. None ap­peared.


CGI’s Cheryl Camp­bell: “Our por­tion of the sys­tem is what we test­i­fied was ready to go live. But it was not our de­cision to go live. It was CMS’ (The Cen­ter for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices) de­cision to go live.”


Rep. Henry Wax­man, D-Cal­if.: Can you ex­plain that these prob­lems will be fixed in time.

Camp­bell: Be­cause as I said, we’re see­ing im­prove­ments day over day. We’re con­tinu­ing to run quer­ies against our data­base. We’re run­ning — re­view­ing sys­tem logs. We’re fine tun­ing our serv­ers. We are ana­lyz­ing the codes for an­om­alies. Every day we’re find­ing chal­lenges in the sys­tem and mak­ing those cor­rec­tions. As you would with any sys­tem that will go live. When a sys­tem goes in­to pro­duc­tion, these are the things you would typ­ic­ally find after pro­duc­tion. Maybe not to the level of de­tail that’s happened in this ex­per­i­ence, but when a sys­tem goes live, these are the things you con­tin­ue to do, you con­tin­ue to provide sys­tem builds and put per­form­ance tun­ing to the ap­plic­a­tion to make sure it con­tin­ues to im­prove time over time.


Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn, R-Tenn: Do you main­tain er­ror logs?

All: Yes.

Black­burn: Can you sub­mit them?

Camp­bell: “I will have to con­fer with CMS as to what doc­u­ments we can and can­not provide.”

Black­burn: “It would be in­ter­est­ing to see those er­ror logs be­cause we’d be able to see how many people are ac­tu­ally ac­cess­ing these sys­tems “¦ and see where the se­cur­ity flaws might be.”

No one else offered an an­swer be­fore Black­burn’s time ex­pired.


Pal­lone force­fully mocked the hear­ing, prompt­ing Up­ton to ask him to yield. Pal­lone re­fused and rose his voice: “No I will not yield to this mon­key court or whatever it is.”

A bit of a shout­ing match en­sued be­fore Pal­lone ad­ded: “Why are we go­ing down this path? Be­cause you are try­ing to scare people so they don’t ap­ply so the Af­ford­able Care Act gets delayed or re­pealed.”

Contributions by Clara Ritger, Dustin Volz, Brian Resnick, Matt Berman and Sam Baker