Obamacare contractors: Don’t blame us
By: Jennifer Haberkorn and Jason Millman and Brett Norman
October 23, 2013 05:19 PM EDT
The Obamacare website contractors plan to tell Congress on Thursday that they are not to blame for the massive problems at HealthCare.gov and that they completed successful testing before the Oct. 1 launch.
But, according to prepared testimony, the four contractors ran into unforeseen problems once open enrollment began. The testimony offers a slight glimpse into the problems that made the website all but unworkable — and warnings that the problems are far from over.
Lawmakers are expected to press the four contractors for details on what went wrong and when they – and the White House – knew about it.
The federal exchange underwent eight technical reviews before Oct. 1 and passed, CGI Federal senior vice president Cheryl Campbell plans to tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee. CGI is considered the lead contractors on HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange website.
“Unfortunately, in systems this complex with so many concurrent users, it is not unusual to discover problems that need to be addressed once the software goes into a live production environment,” she said in her written testimony. “This is true regardless of the level of formal end-to-end performance testing — no amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature.”
Quality Software Services Inc., another major contractor that built the federal data hub and a key part of the account registration process, said that its contributions to the system are functioning well and, for the most part, have since the launch.
Coding for the data hub was finished in June, tested and the signed off on by CMS in early September, according to testimony by Andy Slavitt, an executive vice president at Optum, which owns QSSI.
That doesn’t mean that all the website functions associated with the data hub are working, however.
The data hub is a “technology pipeline” that “does not determine the accuracy of the queries or the responses it transports. It does not store any data. Additionally, the Data Services Hub itself does not determine consumer eligibility, nor does it determine which health plans are available in the marketplaces,” Slavitt said.
The contractors hinted that they don’t want to take the blame. Campbell doesn’t fully identify the problems but outlined problems she attributed to “another contractor.”
“The first set of issues for users dealt with the enterprise identity management (or EIDM) function provided by another contractor, which allows users to create secure accounts,” she wrote. The EIDM is the “front door” to the exchange and the problems there created a bottleneck that “prevented the vast majority of users.”
Campbell said that the bottleneck has undergone some repairs, but now that more people are enrolling more issues have arisen.
“The increased number of transactions in the FFM have caused system performance issues (such as slow response times or data assurance issues) that now need to be addressed through tuning, optimization, and application improvements,” she said.
QSSI built the EIDM, which was finished and tested in February and March. But Slavitt said the site, including the EIDM, was overwhelmed by the unexpected rush of traffic. He said that that may not have been as much of an issue except for a “late decision” to require people to register and account first rather than allow anonymous window shopping. He did not say who made the decision.
Slavitt said the EIDM is now keeping up with demand that the volume does not tell the whole story of the problems with the account registration process, which kept millions of Americans from shopping for and enrolling in insurance plans.
“While the EIDM plays an important role in the registration system, tools developed by other vendors handle critical functions such as the user interface, the e-mail that is sent to the user to confirm registration, the link that the user clicks on to activate the account, and the web page the user lands on,” Slavitt said. “All these tools must work together seamlessly to ensure smooth registration.”
Serco, which has received at least $200 million from the administration to help process paper applications, said it’s received 16,000 applications – and paper is “clearly trending up.” The company’s biggest problem so far has been trying to clean up applications errors, which it’s been using the data hub for, said Serco program director John Lau.
“As time goes on, more of our work will entail inconsistency resolution in order to clear previously submitted applications for the eligibility determination process,” Lau said in written testimony. “Inconsistency resolution entails data verification and validation of self-attested data from Applicants. These are problems identified through the use of the Data Hub in the main system.”
Serco originally was expecting to process 6.2 million paper applications in the six-month open enrollment period, but that was before all of HealthCare.gov’s problems were exposed.
Equifax Workforce Solutions, hired earlier this year to verify applicants’ income and employment records, said everything is working smoothly on its end — and its company has nothing to do with the problems website visitors are experiencing in the account process.
“We have not experienced any issues, downtimes, or anomalies since the start date,” wrote corporate counsel Lynn Spellecy.