Obamacare's Builders Take Turns Yelling 'Not It'

There’s been a lot of back and forth in the past few days over who knew what ahead of the Obamacare rollout. What a new memo tells us is that the Obama administration had no excuse for thinking things would go OK.

CNN has gotten hold of amonth's-end memofrom HealthCare.gov contractor CGI Federal updating the Department of Health and Human Services on the status of its work from August. (Ten guesses where it got that memo -- and the first nine don't count. The contractors are doing everything they can to make sure that someone else takes the fall for this disaster.)

With one month to go, the list of open risks was pretty dire:

Source: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

Those just aren't the kind of status updates you want to see on a product that is going to be processing sensitive data for tens of millions of Americans and forms the central hub for the largest regulatory overhaul of the insurance market in U.S. history. It's amazing to me that HHS could have been getting these kinds of updates and decided to launch the program anyway. I joked at the time that if the system wasn't ready, we'd get an animated GIF of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying, "Welcome to your new health-care exchange! Isn't it great?" Now, I'm not sure it wouldn't have been the better course.

There's been a lot of back and forth in the past few days overwho knew what. What this memo (and the others that were undoubtedly written by other panicking contractors) tells us is that the Barack Obama administration had no excuse for thinking things would go OK: They were told.

On the other hand, I don't know whether they heard what the contractors were telling them. This memo reads to me like CGI screaming "Stop, you fools, you'll kill us all!" But I wouldn't be surprised to find that the HHS folks -- particularly the ones on the policy side -- read this as "Hey, guys, I sure wish we had more time for testing, don't you?" Especially since they really, really wanted things to be OK.

Does that excuse the fact that one month in, we still don't have even a remotely functional website and no reason, other than cheery assurances, to necessarily believe that we'll have one a month hence? Not exactly. The administration's behavior even after the launch seems to indicate to me that it was simply not prepared to listen to anyone who said the system wasn't working. It was going to launch, because dammit, this is its signature initiative, and it has to work. So I can't really credit the administration too much for misunderstanding warnings that I'm pretty sure it would have ignored even if it had understood them.

Other than the fact that the administration was warned, this really doesn't tell us much that we didn't already know -- or, at least, could have inferred. At this point, it's obvious that the system was neither working nor could it possibly have been adequately tested, because tests would have revealed it wasn't working. In an ideal world, CGI would have sent a memo saying, "If you launch this system, it will be against our express recommendations." As a commenter noted in yesterday's posts, tech folks, too, get stuck in Expertopia: They explain what's going wrong but forget that for people to whom all that tech talk often sounds like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons, you can't just outline the technical details; you also have to grab them and shake them and say, "No, seriously, don't do this, it's crazy!"

On the other hand, government contracting has all sorts of intricacies, and government contractors may have learned the hard way not to put warnings like that in writing . . . at least, not if they want to get another contract, ever.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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