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Website contractors blame Obama administration

WASHINGTON (AP) — The principal contractors responsible for the federal
government’s trouble-plagued health insurance website say the Obama
administration shares responsibility for the snags that have crippled the
system.

Executives of CGI Federal, which built the federal HealthCare.gov website
serving 36 states, and QSSI, which designed the part that verifies applicants’
income and other personal details, are testifying Thursday before the House
Energy and Commerce Committee.

The hearing comes as President Barack Obama’s allies are starting to fret about
the political fallout. Democrats had hoped to run for re-election next year on
the benefits of the health care law for millions of uninsured Americans.
Instead, computer problems are keeping many consumers from signing up through
new online markets.

One House Democrat says the president needs to “man up” and fire somebody,
while others are calling for signup deadlines to be extended and a
reconsideration of the penalties individuals will face next year if they remain
uninsured.

On that point, a change in the timeline for signing up for coverage is
underway, the White House said. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to apply for
coverage that’s effective Jan. 1. Even though open enrollment lasts until March
31, people would face a penalty if they postpone buying coverage beyond
mid-February. Calling that a disconnect, the White House said officials will
soon issue policy guidance allowing consumers to sign up by the end of March
without penalty.

The focus on the contractors is a first step for GOP investigators. After the
failure of their drive to defund “Obamacare” by shutting down the government,
they’ve been suddenly handed a new line of attack by the administration itself.
Administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen
Sebelius, are to testify next week.

Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI, suggested in prepared testimony
that Congress should look beyond the contractors. HHS “serves the important
role of systems integrator or `quarterback’ on this project and is the ultimate
responsible party for the end-to-end performance,” she said.

Overwhelming interest from consumers triggered the website problems, she said.
“No amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a
live environment of this nature,” she said.

Andy Slavitt, representing QSSI’s parent company, said the operation’s virtual
back room, known as the federal data hub, is working well despite some bugs. But
his company was also involved with another part of the system, a component for
registering individual consumer accounts that became an online bottleneck.

Slavitt blamed the administration, saying that a late decision to require
consumers to create accounts before they could browse health plans contributed
to the overload. “This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the
registration system that wouldn’t have occurred if consumers could window-shop
anonymously,” he said.

Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., chairman of the panel’s health subcommittee, said he
wants to focus on the administration’s decision not to allow browsing, or
window-shopping. That’s a standard feature of e-commerce sites, including
Medicare.gov for seniors. Lack of a browsing capability forced all users to
first go through the laborious process of creating accounts, overloading that
part of the site.

“Who made that decision? When was it made? Why was it made?” Pitts asked.

Acknowledging what’s been obvious to many outside experts, the administration
said Wednesday that the system didn’t get enough testing, especially at a high
user volume, before going live. It blamed a compressed time frame for meeting
the Oct. 1 deadline to open the insurance markets. Basic “alpha and user
testing” are now completed, but that’s supposed to happen before a launch, not
after.

The administration provided no timetable to fix extensive computer snags but
said technicians are deep into the job. Its explanation, posted online in an HHS
blog and accompanying graphic, identified six broad areas of problems and
outlined fixes underway but in most cases incomplete.

The HHS explanation identified some bugs that have gotten little outside
attention. Technical problems have surfaced that are making the application and
plan-shopping functions difficult to complete. That’s a concern because those
stages are farther along in the signup process than the initial registration,
where many consumers have been getting tripped up. The problems are being
analyzed and fixes are planned.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are starting to worry aloud about persistent
problems with the rollout.

Rep. Richard Nolan, D-Minn., told The Associated Press the computer fiasco has
“damaged the brand” of the health care law.

“The president needs to man up, find out who was responsible, and fire them,”
Nolan said. He did not name anyone.

Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, interviewed Thursday on “CBS
This Morning,” said that Obama “can’t just get stuck on this for the next
several weeks.” As for calls that Sebelius be fired, Daley said that would be
like firing the captain of the Titanic “after the ship hit the iceberg.”

Obama says he’s as frustrated as anyone and has promised a “tech surge” to
fix the balky website. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration
will be more transparent about the problems. After more than 20 days without
briefing the media, HHS will start regular sessions on Thursday, he said.

In light of the computer problems, some Democrats are saying Obama should
consider extending open enrollment season beyond March 31 and revisit the
penalties for individuals who don’t sign up and remain uninsured. Under the law,
virtually all Americans must carry health insurance starting next year or face
fines.

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