Oct. 24 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. government did final tests of the Obamacare website just days before it went public, while similar projects are tested for months, the main contractors told a House panel investigating flaws that hobbled the debut.
Units of CGI Group Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc., which designed healthcare.gov, said a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was responsible for the end-to-end testing that they said should have been done months earlier.
“It would have been better to have more time,” Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal Inc., the site designer, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She declined to say when the site would be free of impediments, and said it would be ready to meet all deadlines in the health law.
The website failures since Oct. 1 are making it difficult for people to enroll, marring the debut and giving critics ammunition to undercut the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The flaws may discourage the participation of young, healthy, web-savvy consumers, who are needed to offset the risk of insuring older, sicker people.
Democrats such as Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, accused Republicans at the hearing of waging “another cynical effort to delay” Obamacare, and Republicans said they were misled by government officials and contractors about the site’s readiness for its debut.
“Here we go again,” Pallone said as the hearing began. “The Republicans don’t have clean hands coming here.”
Officials with President Barack Obama’s administration and contractors repeatedly assured committee members that the federal health exchange was ready before its troubled debut, said Representative Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who heads the House panel.
“This is not about blame, it’s about accountability,” Upton said as he opened the hearing that lasted 4 1/2 hours.
After the hearing, Upton said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, will face tough questions during her scheduled appearance before the panel Oct. 30.
“She better come with some answers,” Upton told Bloomberg Television’s Peter Cook in an interview for “Capitol Gains” being broadcast this weekend. “If they knew that this thing was not ready to be rolled out on Oct. 1, why didn’t they delay it? Why didn’t they take the time to do it right?”
Republicans on the committee led by Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said the site might violate federal laws barring disclosure of medical information, putting at risk private records.
Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, said those concerns were unfounded because the only medical question asked on the site is whether the user is a smoker.
Republicans are seizing on the failures as they seek to delay implementation of the law, while Democrats are urging more time to overcome the website woes. Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina today joined Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, to press for a delay in the deadline to register for coverage.
CGI told lawmakers it did nothing wrong and blamed another vendor and a federal agency for website flaws hobbling online registration.
“It was not our decision to go live,” Campbell said in today’s testimony. The decision was made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, she said.
Even so, CGI thought the site was ready to debut on time and didn’t make a recommendation to delay the launch, she said.
The site doesn’t need six months to eliminate the flaws, is “improving every day” and will be ready to meet all deadlines, she said.
In response to a question from Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, Campbell said, “I cannot give you an exact date” for when the impediments will be eliminated. She said the company had received eight change orders for its work on the federal exchange, the most recent in August.
Campbell pointed at another vendor during the hearing, saying Quality Software Services Inc., owned by UnitedHealth Group Inc., helped design a system that created a “bottleneck” blocking a majority of users from signing up.
Today’s hearing is meant to determine whether breakdowns at www.healthcare.gov were caused by the contractors, or “were they told to do it this way” by the Department of Health and Human Services, Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters yesterday in Washington.
In addition to CGI Federal, based in Fairfax, Virginia, and the Quality Software Services unit of Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group, the committee heard from Equifax Workforce Solutions, a unit of Atlanta-based Equifax Inc., and a U.S. unit of Serco Group Plc, a U.K. services provider.
CGI said Quality Software had provided the device that caused the first logjam on the website. CGI has been awarded more than more than $420 million in contracts tied to the health-care law, according to an analysis by Peter Gosselin, a senior health analyst with Bloomberg Government in Washington.
The inability of the site to handle million of online requests was tied to Quality Software’s identity management tool, Campbell said. The company was awarded more than $150 million in contracts tied to Obamacare, according to Gosselin.
Quality Software’s tool is now working, Andrew Slavitt, group executive vice president for the UnitedHealth division responsible for the unit, said in testimony.
The company was involved during testing of exchange work done by others and “made everyone aware of the risks that we saw,” he said. It didn’t make a recommendation to delay the site’s debut either, he said.
His company also said it is preferable to conduct final end-to-end testing months ahead of time.
“Ideally, integrated testing would have occurred well before,” Slavitt said.
Besides the next Energy and Commerce panel hearing Oct. 30, the House Ways and Means Committee has scheduled a hearing Oct. 29 with the head of Medicaid and Medicare Services, which is running the health-care exchanges.
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