The Obama administration tapped former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene to take over managing HealthCare.gov on Tuesday, as President Obama sought the advice of high-tech executives on how to improve the federal government’s online health insurance enrollment system.
DelBene, who recently retired from Microsoft and is married to Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), will serve as an unpaid senior adviser. He will succeed Jeffrey Zients, who is scheduled to head the National Economic Council beginning in February.
“Kurt has proven expertise in heading large, complex technology teams and in product development,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in an official blog post Tuesday. She said he will serve in the role at least until the end of June.
Several lawmakers, concerned about the Web site’s rocky rollout, had pressed the administration to install an outside expert to oversee its operations once Zients left. Zients, who was appointed in late October and oversaw major improvements in the system, had requested a month’s time to prepare for his next West Wing assignment.
DelBene spent two decades managing large technical teams at Microsoft and recently served as president of its Microsoft Office division; he announced in July that he would retire by the end of the year. Sebelius said that he will work with Health and Human Services officials and the site’s general contractor, QSSI.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in a statement that DelBene “brings deep expertise as a manager and engineer to his new responsibilities.”
Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president in Microsoft Office’s engineering group, said in a phone interview that in working with DelBene over the past decade, he’s been struck by his ability to combine a broad vision with a practical approach.
“He can see the big problems that we’re trying to solve but is also able to wallow into the details of the code itself. That’s a pretty unique thing,” Koenigsbauer said. Software offers engineers endless possibilities, he said, “but at the end of the day you have to ship something, you have to deliver something and get it done.”
DelBene oversaw more than 6,000 engineers as president of the Microsoft Office division and helped transition the long-standing software package to a cloud-based format.
Sebelius wrote that “the President and I believe strongly in having one person, with strong experience and expertise in management and execution, who is thinking 24/7 about HealthCare.gov.”
DelBene also will work on the site’s performance to ensure that it functions well throughout the open enrollment period, which ends March 31, Sebelius added.
Her department announced DelBene’s appointment as he and other administration officials were meeting with 15 executives from high-tech firms about the Web site, federal IT contracting and the government’s national security surveillance program. Zients attended the session, along with White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and several top national security and economic officials.
After the meeting, the White House issued a statement saying that the group discussed “issues of shared importance to the federal government and the tech sector, including the progress being made to improve performance and capacity issues with HeathCare.Gov.”
“The President made clear his continued focus on improving the way we deliver technology to maximize innovation, efficiency and customer service, and encouraged the CEOs to continue to share their ideas on how to do so,” the statement added.
During a West Coast fundraising swing last month, Obama told several high-tech donors that HealthCare.gov’s botched launch had convinced him that he needed to overhaul the way the federal government issues contracts for technology projects. But Silicon Valley firms have had only limited involvement in the Web site’s overhaul, with a handful of experts from Google, Red Hat and Salesforce.com volunteering their time on the project.
Some of the Silicon Valley officials who met with the president Tuesday were generous donors to his 2012 reelection bid: Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer raised between $100,000 and $200,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while Shervin Pishevar, co-founder and co-CEO of Sherpa Global, raised more than $500,000. And Mark Pincus, Zynga’s chief product officer and chairman,gave $1 million to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC affiliated with Obama.
More broadly, the employees and family members of the 15 firms represented at the meeting gave an average of $356,000 per company to Obama, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Matea Gold contributed to this report.