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Senior CMS official warned in mid-July HealthCare.gov could ‘crash,’ documents show

(Mike Segar/Reuters) (Mike Segar/Reuters)

A senior official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid warned colleagues on July 16 he was worried the online enrollment system could "crash" upon its Oct. 1 launch, according to new documents released Friday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In an e-mail to his colleagues in which CMS officials discussed whether to give one of the primary contractors GCI Federal another $38 million to work on HealthCare.gov through February 2014, CMS deputy chief information officer Henry Chao questioned whether to provide the contractor with more money.

“I just need to feel more confident they are not going to crash the plane at take-off, regardless of price," Chao wrote.

In a series of e-mails between July 8 and 20, agency officials wrote that they believe when it came to the Web site's financial management system, the "build is way off track." And at one point, one official said of that element, “We believe that our entire build is in jeopardy.”

They also worried about how this conflicted with their official testimony before the oversight panel that summer. Chao warned his colleagues on July 20 that both CMS director Marilyn Tavenner "and I under oath stated we are going to make October 1st."

"Aside from the political rhetoric, ranting, etc., my perspective is on a personal and professional basis, I made this promise on behalf of all of us and I have no doubt together we will drive the outcomes that flow from this promise," he wrote.

CMS spokeswoman Patti Unruh said the documents released by the panel do not provide an accurate depiction of how federal officials were assessing the overall state of the project as it was being constructed.

“This email discusses one small piece of ongoing discussions about managing deliverables and communicating expectations that were on a short timeline to meet October 1st,” she said. “Management concerns about meeting timelines are expected for any project of this size and scope.”

Linda Odorisio, CGI’s vice president for global communications said in a statement Friday that government officials’ changing directions to her company affected its ability to deliver what the administration asked of it. CGI is the parent company of GCI Federal.

“As we have throughout this project, CGI is 100 percent focused on delivering not only its portion of Healthcare.gov but improving the overall system.  Evolving requirements and shifting priorities had a significant effect on the design, development and deployment of the technology prior to launch,” she said. “Instead of looking backwards, CGI is eyes forward, working with CMS and QSSI to continuously improve system performance and end user experience.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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