It Wasn’t Me – HHS IT Contractors Shift Blame at Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held an oversight hearing on Thursday, October 24, during which they took the testimony of three private contractors responsible for building the new federal health insurance site Healthcare.gov, along with the contractor handling the paper applications. The Committee called on the contractors – CGI Federal, Optum/QSSI, Equifax Workforce Solutions, and Serco – to explain what went wrong with the website and who was responsible for the problems. With over 55 contractors developing components for Healthcare.gov, the finger could be pointed in many possible directions. And according to the contractors that testified at yesterday’s hearing, the finger should be pointed anywhere but at them.

Equifax Workforce Solutions contracted with CMS to build an automated employment and income verification system, to check that the incomes consumers reported on Healthcare.gov were in fact accurate for purposes of calculating premium tax credits and cost sharing reductions for enrollees. According to Lynn Spellecy, Corporate Counsel for Equifax Workforce Solutions, her company’s product has been “successfully implemented and has met or exceeded all agreed upon operating specifications in [their] service agreement with CMS.”  Spellecy said that its product is “working as designed” and its product has “not experienced any issues, downtimes, or anomalies since the start date.”

The Committee also took the testimony of Andrew Slavitt, Group Executive Vice President of Optum, who similarly asserted that Optum’s work on the Data Services Hub, “a pipeline that transfers data – routing queries and responses between a given marketplace and various trusted data sources”, has “performed well since the marketplace’s launch.”  Optum, however, also created a registration and management tool – called the EIDM – that Slavitt conceded had “initial scalability challenges” but that its processing capability has since been enhanced and is now processing high levels of registration, with “error rates close to zero.” Slavitt shifted some of the blame for the initial registration issues on the tools developed by other vendors handling other critical functions of the registration system, such as the user interface, emails sent to confirm registration, links to account activation, and the ultimate web page the user is directed to. All of these tools, he testified, must “work together seamlessly to ensure smooth registration.”

CGI Federal had the largest contract with CMS. However, Vice President of CGI Federal Cheryl Campbell emphasized that CMS had the important role of systems integrator or “quarterback” on the project. As a result, Campbell said, CMS is the “ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance of the overall Federal Exchange.” Campbell testified Thursday that CGI performed multiple technical reviews prior to going live on October 1and her company’s product passed all of those reviews. She added that CGI has delivered the functionality promised in its contract with CMS. Campbell blamed QSSI for the component of the website that caused the initial bottleneck we saw October 1 and the days that followed.

The contractors did find consensus on the fact that they did not have a say on whether the website should have gone live on October 1. They asserted that they did their part by reporting to CMS any problems or bugs they encountered during testing but that it was not their place to decide whether or not to launch on October 1.

If no one product was experiencing massive failure during pre-launch testing, the question becomes, what went wrong when the products were integrated into one system on October 1? The problem, according to Slavitt, may have been due in part to the Administration’s last minute decision to require consumers to register for an account before they could browse plans – this, he explained, contributed to the increased stress on the system.  Slavitt said the short two week window for end-to-end beta testing they had before going live, may not have been enough time to test the integrated system. Testing, Slavitt said, should have occurred “well before that date…months would have been nice.” Campbell concurred, explaining that CGI customarily does end-to-end testing months in advance of a “go live.”

While not entirely clear who is to blame for Healthcare.gov’s ongoing issues, it is clear that the website still has a way to go to be fully functional. Two different solutions were advanced by Committee members at yesterday’s hearing. One group’s slogan was “fix it, don’t nix it” while the other group’s recommendation, now a familiar one, was to delay the individual mandate for a year.

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