October 25 2013

ObamaCare: Blamegame.gov

Patrice J. Lee

A stunning degree of self-praise and buck-passing was on display at yesterday’s first congressional hearing into what went wrong with the development and testing of the ObamaCare website.

Executives from CGI Federal, which built heathcare.gov, and QSSI, which designed functionality that verifies an applicant’s income and other personal details, testified before a House Committee. Likely fed up with being the scapegoat for the failure of the website and the butt of many jokes, the contractors came out swinging against the Administration.

After opening remarks from Republicans condemning the problems with the website and suggesting deeper flaws with ObamaCare, the contractors laid out who they thought deserved blame for the error-ridden website:

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.

These contractors confirmed what we feared when earlier this summer when we reported that in a rushed effort to meet the October 1 Enrollment Day deadline, the Administration ignored missed testing deadlines for the website and the data hub. The contractors confirmed that pressure trumped good judgment and it’s the American people who have paid the price.

Let’s not gloss over a key piece of the discussion. Both contractors pointed to the Administration’s last-minute decision to keep consumers from anonymously browsing plans as driver behind the headaches with the website. With most ecommerce sites from Amazon to Zappos.com a person can shop without needing to set up an account and verify their information. Even government sites like Medicare.gov allow consumers to shop anonymously.

So why did the Administration pull this feature and force people to set up accounts before viewing plan options? Sticker shock! The Administration didn’t want Americans –especially those they need to opt in to the system like healthy young people and Hispanics - to see the real costs of the health insurance plans without the government subsidies. It would be hard to still call ObamaCare “affordable” after that.

Health and Human Services even admitted this:

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said recently that window shopping wouldn’t have let consumers first see if they were eligible for tax credits. The credits amount to a discount off the sticker price of premiums.

Without citing any evidence, some Republicans suggested the administration’s motivation was political. “This browsable website was turned off to hide the costs,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.

So what will we get out of these hearings? If you’re hoping for an apology think again. The contractors like CGI and QSSI deserve to take a big helping of responsibility, but they didn’t and likely won’t.

The Administration deserves the most blame for giving directives on features and timelines. They plowed ahead when it became obvious that the site wasn’t ready for primetime. There had been no testing from start to finish through the entire website process until far too late in the game. But, don’t expect an apology from Kathleen Sebelius or the President.

What do we get from Sebelius?  “There are people in this country who have waited decades for affordable health coverage, people who are so eager for this to happen,” Sebelius told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta on Tuesday night. “Waiting is not really an option.”

Most Americans will agree that there’s always an option when it comes to bad policies. Looks like another day in Washington.

 

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