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U.S. hires contractor to fix healthcare website

The goal is to fix the troubled online insurance marketplaces by the end of November, an official says, as Republicans continue to chastise the Obama administration.

October 25, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Becca Clemons
  • Jeffrey Zients, the management consultant enlisted to assess the Obama administration's troubled healthcare website, promised the site would be running smoothly by the end of November.
Jeffrey Zients, the management consultant enlisted to assess the Obama… (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Getty…)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration hired a general contractor to fix its troubled health insurance website and promised Friday that the key feature of the president's healthcare law would be running smoothly by the end of November.

That target date was the first public deadline officials offered for troubleshooting the glitch-riddled website. In announcing the time frame, Jeffrey Zients, the management consultant enlisted to assess the situation, acknowledged that dozens of unresolved problems remained, including software flaws — contradicting administration officials' early claims that unexpected traffic volume was the main cause of the frequent error messages, frozen screens and other problems.

Still, Zients said the site would be running smoothly for the "vast majority" of users by the end of next month.

" is fixable," he told reporters Friday. "It will take a lot of work, and there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed. But let me be clear: is fixable."

Quality Software Services Inc., a unit of UnitedHealth Group and one of the three major contractors that worked on the site, were chosen to lead the repair process, officials said.

Hiring a private firm for the site's rehabilitation was a tacit acknowledgment that the government's attempt to manage multiple contractors and complicated technology had gone awry. During the three years of design and construction of the online insurance marketplace, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has acted as the systems integrator, a role some critics have said was outside the agency's expertise.

Since its Oct. 1 rollout, the site has shut out millions of users, thanks to a registration system that was initially broken as well as to problems with the application function.

The late November target for repairs is slightly sooner than some had predicted. Contractors who worked on the site told lawmakers on Thursday that they believed it could be functioning well by Dec. 15, the last day consumers can enroll for coverage to begin Jan. 1.

In order to avoid a tax penalty for not carrying insurance, consumers must enroll in a plan by March 31, officials said.

Putting a contractor in charge was unlikely to take much pressure off the administration in the coming weeks. Several Republicans are calling for the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, while 10 Democratic senators are urging the administration to give consumers more time to enroll.

On Friday, Republicans threatened to serve Sebelius with a subpoena if she did not provide documents related to the website's woes.

In a letter sent Thursday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) asked for a detailed description of the technical problems and how much the government has spent to address them.

They chastised Sebelius for not providing the documents after an Oct. 10 request, while she has "been a frequent guest on numerous news and television comedy programs subsequent to Oct. 1, 2013," wrote Alexander, the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

A department spokeswoman said that the lawmakers' request was "extremely broad" and that the recent government shutdown — a result of House Republicans' effort to delay the health insurance mandate — had slowed the response.

Lawmakers have repeatedly been told "that we intend to accommodate their interest in better understanding our efforts to implement" the healthcare law, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said.

On Friday, Sebelius said she had been unaware of the extent of the problems before the site went live. At a visit to a health clinic in Austin, Texas, she told reporters she "didn't realize it wouldn't be operating optimally before the launch."

"We knew that if we had had another six months we would probably test further, but I don't think anyone fully realized that both volume caused some problems, but volume also exposed some problems," she said at a news conference broadcast by a local TV station.

Zients' diagnosis, however, went well beyond problems with volume. The former acting director for the Office of Management and Budget said that his review turned up dozens of unresolved issues dealing with functionality and performance on the "back end" of the site. At the top of the list is a problem with garbled and incorrect data being sent to insurers, he said.

QSSI Inc. will be charged with working through the list. The firm was responsible for building the site's data hub — a function that shares information with state exchanges and one of the only elements officials have highlighted as working properly.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the agency was modifying an existing contract with the firm and did not disclose the estimated cost of the work.

Zients acknowledged that in the first days of the rollout, "very few" people could create accounts on the site. After three weeks of repairs, he said, "90% of users can create accounts."

The next phase of the process — the application that determines eligibility for tax credits — was "volatile," he said. At times fewer than one-third of users could get through the application process, he said. CMS officials say a total of 700,000 applications have been completed. Roughly half of those were submitted through the federal exchange, the other half through state-run marketplaces.

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