The House Energy and Commerce Committee started on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 holding hearings related to the problems with the HealthCare.gov website. The contractors responsible for developing the site testified on the first day of hearings, and denied it is their fault the technical difficulties the site has experienced since it went live on Oct. 1. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify on Wednesday, Oct. 30, after spending the week touring the country to promote the new healthcare law.
The House committee headed by Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-MI heard the testimonies of four contractors associated with the building of the HealthCare.gov website. The testimonies revealed that the government only began testing the health care marketplace website only two weeks before the date the site was set to go live.
Rep. Upton stated the reason for the hearings; "We are now entering week four of the botched health care rollout, and with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent for a system that still does not work, Congress and the American people deserve answers. It is not fair to force Americans to buy a product that is too expensive and not accessible."
Chairman Upton expressed concern that that the problems would go beyond the HealthCare.gov website malfunctioning, and would have deeper ramifications afterwards for those who were able to successfully signed up while there were problems within the site. Rep. Upton in his opening remarks asked a series of rhetorical questions about the consequences; "The website should've been the easy part. I'm also concerned about what happens next? Will enrollment glitches become provider payment glitches? Will patients show up at their doctor's office or hospital only to be told that they aren't covered?"
The vice senior president at CGI Federal, Cheryl Campbell testified on contractor's behalf. Campbell blamed the Obama Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS), which is an agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the problems, because they headed the project, stating; they were the "systems integrator or quarterback on this project."
Campbell emphasized that CMS were the ones that hired numerous contractors and integrated their designs and that was the primary reason for the technical problems. Cambell told the House committee; "From a CGI perspective, our portion of the application worked as designed. People have been able to enroll, not at the pace, not as the experience we would have liked. But the end-to-end testing was the responsibility of CMS."
Optum/QSSI's group executive vice president Andrew Slavitt, also testified that his company, who was responsible data services hub, which is the center of the latest technical difficulties, stated; "Many of the critical components developed by these multiple vendors were overwhelmed, including the virtual data center environment, the software, the database system and the hardware, and our [Enterprise Identity Management] tool." Slavitt also warned CMS that website was not ready for the public; "We did fully talk about the risks that we saw, and we passed them along." Both contractors also expressed they are now seeing improvements since the opening week.
There not just negative comments coming from the Republicans in the committee, but also the Democrats, who are in a minority. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-CA, who represents Silicon Valley in the House, questioned how the site could not have withstood the traffic when all online vendors do. Rep. Eshoo expressed; "There are thousands of websites that carry far more traffic. So I think that's really kind of a lame excuse. Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas and ProFlowers doesn't crash on Valentine's Day." Rep. Upton agreed that "Whether it's like ordering a pizza, an airline flight, a rental car, a hotel, it's a standard that many were expecting to see, and I think most at this point would say it's really not ready for prime time."
Continuing Rep. Eshoo questioned the contractors; "Are you saying that you didn't test? That the test worked very well, both inside and out? Or that you turned it all over to CMS? Anybody want to answer. If you don't have an answer, just say that you don't."
Both contractors maintain that HHS was responsible for the final testing of the approximately $500 million website, not either of their companies. It was at the final testing stage the problems who have been visible, both representatives believed there needed to be "months" more of testing until the site were integrated and worked properly.
Still Republican members of the committee especially expressed frustration that everyone previously involved in the website's development always expressed confidence in its final product. Additionally representatives from two other companies contracted to work on the site Equifax Workforce Solutions and Serco also testified.
The Obama administration tapped on Monday, Oct. 21, Optum/QSSI to oversee all the technical fixes to the website, they issued a statement defining their role; "QSSI will help monitor, assess, prioritize and manage the technical operations of HealthCare.gov to enhance the consumer experience."
The criticism over the healthcare website will not ease up this week for the President. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius originally was supposed to testify on Thursday, Oct. 24, and now is set to testify on Wednesday, Oct. 30, before the committee. Rep. Fred Upton released a statement on Monday, Oct. 21, saying; "As the administration continues to withhold important details and enrollment figures, I hope Secretary Sebelius is ready to give answers and finally live up to the president's celebrated claims of transparency."
Meanwhile, in response the committee testimony from the day before, the White House on Friday, Oct. 25 announced that the majority of technical difficulties will be resolved by the end of November. The White House announced on Tuesday, Oct. 22 that Jeff Zients, the former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget will be the consultant hired to deal with the problems.
Zients spoke to the press on Friday and admitted the site is "volatile," but promised Americans "much-improved response times and fewer time-outs," and it will be "faster, and there will be many fewer errors," and the public will be able to "move smoothly through the site and get enrolled for health insurance." Zients declared that "Healthcare.gov is fixable." At this point, only a minority of users three out of a 10 could successfully sign-up.
The Obama administration has been downplaying the technical problems associated with the signing up process on the new health care website and Marketplace, HealthCare.gov. The Marketplace is riddled with error messages, and is turning millions of Americans visiting away, and preventing others from completing the insurance sign up process. CEOs from Insurance companies met at the White House on Wednesday, Oct. 23, also revealed that the forms called 834s, that have been sent in through the website are filled with data errors.
The HealthCare.gov website is the main marketplace for 36 states; the remaining states have their websites developed. The website was supposed to be a portal to allow Americans to shop for health insurance that fits with the new law. There are two major technical problems with the site; it cannot withstand the traffic volume and its "platform design." The problems have been attributed to delays in development during the 2012 Presidential campaign, and last minute testing, which only began two weeks before the site was to go live on Oct. 1, 2013.
Americans without insurance now have until March 31, 2014 to sign up for health insurance before the individual mandate takes effect imposing a tax penalty on Americans, who do not have insurance or do not have insurance that meets the standards of the new law. The mandate will be $95 or "up to one percent of income" for 2014, $325 if one does not insurance by 2015, and the penalty skyrockets to $695 for Americans who do not have insurance by 2016.
President Obama has now given Republicans fuel to fight healthcare law, and a perfect reason to demand the delay of the individual mandate. Republicans are also now having the support of some Democrats. The united front Obama had with Democrats over his sweeping health care law is breaking down. Unless the website problems are fixed and do not keep on with continuing new problems, the President will have to delay the individual mandate, and concede that the Republicans were right with the foresight that the implementation of such a law would be disastrous and impossible.
- Rep. Fred Upton's Opening Statement, Committee on Energy and Commerce Hearing on “PPACA Implementation Failures: Didn’t Know or Didn’t Disclose?,” Oct. 24, 2013
- Committee on Energy and Commerce Hearing "PPACA Implementation Failures: Didn’t Know or Didn’t Disclose?", Oct. 24, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.