In hearing, a startling agreement on who to blame for HealthCare.Gov

October 24, 2013

(Jason Reed/Reuters)

Everyone at the Energy and Commerce hearing this morning came to an agreement on who caused the problems with HealthCare.Gov: Somebody else.

"Our portion of the application worked as designed," CGI Federal  Vice President Cheryl Campbell testified.

"We were confident it would work on October 1 and in fact it has," Andy Slavitt, who represented contractor QSSI at the hearing, said of the federal data hub that his employer built.

The hearing room, even four hours into testimony, was packed and standing-room only. When CGI's Campbell took a five-minute bathroom break, a pack of a half-dozen cameras followed her up and down the hallway.

"You probably haven't gotten a lot of sleep in the past week," Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.) told her and the other witnesses somewhere between hours three and four. The hearing ended around 1:30 p.m. with about a dozen cameras chasing the QSSI representative around the House office building as he refused to answer any questions (one camera crashed into a wall).

That did not stop the hearing from stretching on for the entire morning, and greater part of the afternoon. The result of the marathon hearing yielded a few notable tidbits.

Contractors are more than happy to throw the federal government under the bus. 

For a while, the government contractors were staying pretty mum on who should take the blame for HealthCare.Gov's screw-ups. And this makes sense for companies' whose main line of business is the federal government.

But at this hearing, both CGI and QSSI threw a lot of blame at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service, mostly for three key issues: the short time left for end-to-end testing, the decision to go live on October 1 and ditching a feature allowing consumers to window shop shortly before the site went live.

"CMS had the ultimate decision to go live or not go live," Campbell testified near the start of the hearing. "At CGI we were not in position to make that decision. We were there to support the client. It's not our position to tell clients whether to go live or not go live."

Slavitt from QSSI said that end-to-end testing of the system happened sometime in the last two weeks of September. When pressed on how much time would have been ideal for testing, he responded "months would have been nice."

Get ready to hear a lot more about — and from — Henry Chao

He is the deputy chief information officer at  Health and Human Services, and his name was mentioned three times by CGI's Campbell as the person who "likely" decided to delay a window-shopping feature for HealthCare.Gov.

To back up a bit on this: For a while, the HealthCare.Gov Web site included a feature where customers could look at plan premiums priced specifically to where they live and how much they earn. At some point, though, that feature got shelved  — and that might account partially for the Web site's early problems. With every shopper required to register before seeing prices, that may have created a bottleneck in the system.

The representatives for QSSI and CGI both said CMS decided to delay that feature. When asked who specifically made the decision, Campbell said, "I believe it was Henry Chao and members of his team."

For its part, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services says that it delayed the window shopping portion to increase its bandwidth to focus on more important issues, such as ensuring people can actually enroll in a plan.

"Obviously, as we got closer to October 1, we needed to prioritize items for launch and go live so consumers could conduct a full application process," Medicare spokeswoman Julie Bataille told reporters this afternoon. "We made a business decision to prioritize resources so that functionality would be ready for consumers."

Press interest in government contractors is at an all-time high

In three years writing about health care, I've never seen so many cameras at a congressional hearing. About a dozen television cameras showed up to hear four government contractors talk for 4.5 hours. Let that sink in for a moment.

When the hearing ended, the whole pack followed Andy Slavitt down the hallway towards the exit. One crashed into the hallway wall. Someone yelled "STAIRS!" as they came close to all tumbling down the marble staircase. A Capitol Police officer escorted Slavitt and a few other QSSI staff members out of the building.

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Neil Irwin | October 24, 2013