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U.S. health site tests ‘began too late’

Program should have had months of checks, not weeks, inquiry hears

The Washington Post

Private contractors in charge of building the federal online health insurance marketplace testified Thursday that the administration went ahead with the Oct. 1 launch of HealthCare.gov despite insufficient testing.

In their first public remarks since the debut of the problem-ridden insurance exchange, executives of the main IT companies told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that full tests of the website that should have been carried out months in advance, but began just two weeks before its rollout.

“It was not our decision to go live,” said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, which handled most of the project. She said the decision was made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.

CMS officials declined to spell out why the complete tests started so late.

“This system just wasn’t tested enough,” Julie Bataille, director of CMS’ office of communications, acknowledged to reporters. She repeatedly cited what she called “a compressed time frame” without explaining what that meant or the reasons for it.

“We are putting into place a much more rigorous testing process now,” Bataille said during the first of what the Obama administration has said will be regular briefings on the progress of the “Obamacare” website.

Thursday’s hearing was called by the House committee’s Republican majority, which vehemently opposes the Affordable Care Act and has brandished the website’s flaws as fresh evidence of the overall problems with the law.

The online marketplace is a major component of the 2010 law that is revising the nation’s health care system. HealthCare.gov and similar state websites are meant to be one-stop shopping sites for health insurance for Americans who cannot get or afford coverage through a job. People who log on are supposed to be able to see an array of plans available to them at different price points and to apply for government assistance that will help most of them buy insurance.

But many who have tried to use the site have been locked out, and reports continue to emerge about errors discovered deeper in the system. Administration officials said this week they have enlisted leading experts as part of a “tech surge” to address the problems, but they have declined to say when the site will be fixed.

A smoothly running site is critical, in part because most uninsured people will be required next year to carry health insurance or pay a fine.

The Department of Health and Human Services declined to send a representative to the hearing. But Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify before the panel next Wednesday. Talking with reporters Thursday, Bataille ducked questions about whether Sebelius had been aware that tests in the two weeks before the online marketplace opened showed the site was not entirely working.

The Washington Post reported last week that as late as Sept. 26, there had been no “end-to-end” testing of the site mimicking the real-life experience of thousands of users simultaneously trying to get online and buy coverage. During one such test, the system crashed at a few hundred users, according to people familiar with the project.

It is unclear why there is a discrepancy between that timing and the testimony Thursday from CGI that complete tests began in the middle of September.

Committee members asked how early that sort of testing should have been done in an ideal situation.

“Months would be nice,” said Andy Slavitt, executive vice president of Optum. The company owns Columbia, Maryland-based Quality Software Services Inc., which built part of the website. It also built the “data hub,” a network connecting HealthCare.gov with many other state, federal and insurer databases.

Also present at the hearing were executives from Serco, the company processing paper applications, and Equifax Workforce Solutions, a subsidiary of the credit-reporting company that is providing income and employment information to help determine a person’s eligibility for Medicaid or subsidies.

But most of the attention fell on CGI and Optum, whose representatives admitted no culpability during the hearing despite grilling by committee members upset that some of the same executives had testified at a Sept. 10 hearing that their parts of the project were going well.