National Journal - Is the Congressional Inquiry on Obamacare a 'Monkey Court'?

January 30, 2014
In The News

How angry do members of Congress want to appear about the bugs?

Thursday's House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing with several executives from the big contractors behind the site gives us a peek.

Or, as Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., so gracefully put it: Welcome to the "monkey court."

The upshot from the contractors: It's not our fault.

They said their pieces of the puzzle worked fine when tested independently, and only crashed once the system was tested from front to back.

Contractors also said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)—not their companies—decided to launch anyway, despite flaws discovered in the testing. Andrew Slavitt, from QSSI, which built part of the system, said his company informed CMS that more testing was needed.

What appeared in the testimonies were the complexities of several government contractors working on separate, yet ultimately integrated systems—with each contractor seemingly blind (or partially blind) to other aspects of the website construction. What came next was occasionally obtuse political grandstanding. With very few answers as to what exactly went wrong with the website. And the answers aren't simple. "Now, I represent Silicon Valley, and I find this very hard to follow," Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., said.

Here are some highlights, which we'll be updating throughout the hearing.

Update (1:14 p.m.): CGI's Campbell acknowledged reports that insurance companies are getting inaccurate information about the applicants who can get through – for example, dependents coming though as multiple spouses.

"We have uncovered a number of those scenarios -- not significant, but a number of them … Most of them are isolated, not across the board for all insurers," Campbell said.

She said CGI is flagging the errors as they arise and working to sort out the problem.

Update (12:07 p.m.): Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, says that, to prove a point about the dificult of navigating, he went T.V. shopping on Amazon during the hearing. He says he pretty easily found thousands of options., not so easy.


Update (11:50 a.m.): House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa announced Tuesday he would investigate why CGI was instructed at the last minute to disable the anonymous shopping feature and require consumers to create profiles before viewing health insurance plan prices.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, read portions of Issa's letter, and told Campbell thatIssa said he has mounting evidence that there were White House political considerations involved in the decision.

Issa's office confirmed Thursday they were briefed last week by CGI officials. Campbell cast doubt on Issa's letter.

"I don't believe that members of CGI actually made those statements directly in that manner," Campbell said. "I think they may have been taken out of context but I'd have to get back to you on that and no the White House has not given us direct instructions."

The last-minute change required testing, Slavitt said, and QSSI informed CMS.

"We informed CMS that more testing was necessary, we informed CMS of the pieces of the system that had issues that we had tested," Slavitt said.


Upate (11:46 a.m.): CGI Federal built the bulk of, which has been plagued by technical problems since its launch on Oct. 1. CGI's Cheryl Campbell confirmed that the system crashed during a test that simulated only a few hundred people trying to log in.

"There was an end-to-end test that occurred, and the system did crash with about that number," she said.

But CGI said the problems with aren't its fault. When CGI tested its piece of the site independently, it worked fine, Campbell said. Only during "end-to-end testing" were problems discovered.


Update (11:32 a.m.): Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan., pushed CGI's Cheryl Campbell on possible security problems with

"You don't need to have willy-nilly code. You can have the best code in the world. Every cyber-security expert understands that when you introduce new code, it has other implications on a broader system. Even beyond your borders. That's what we are worried--we are not worried you are putting bad code in. We are worried you may accidentally, as we know with the functionality of your system doesn't work, it would be only logical to conclude if the functionality of the system doesn't work when it all came together, you cannot compose security."


Update (10:58 a.m.): This exchange touches on the theme of this whole hearing. That each contractor stands by their work, and the failure is in the aggregate.

Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Penn.: Why doesn't work properly?

CGI's Cheryl Campbell: Sir, if there is with a silver bullet to answer -- if there was a silver bullet to answer that question, I would. It is not just a component of what CGI is responsible for. It's the end-to-end aspect that is challenged. There's components across the entire system -- across the ecosystem that can have an impact.

Rep. Pitts: Mr. Slavitt?

Andy Slavitt, Group Executive Vice-President at Optum: We absolutely take accountability for those first days when our tool was part of the issue in terms of being able to handle all of the unexpected volume. And we absolutely will take accountability for helping in any way we can to help this project go forward. Fortunately today, the data services hub and the eidm tool are performing well.


Chairman Fred Upton: "Did anyone recommend delaying the launch?" He then asked for raised hands from the witnesses. None appeared.


CGI's Cheryl Campbell: "Our portion of the system is what we testified was ready to go live. But it was not our decision to go live. It was CMS' (The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) decision to go live."


Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.: Can you explain that these problems will be fixed in time.

Campbell: Because as I said, we're seeing improvements day over day. We're continuing to run queries against our database. We're running—reviewing system logs. We're fine tuning our servers. We are analyzing the codes for anomalies. Every day we're finding challenges in the system and making those corrections. As you would with any system that will go live. When a system goes into production, these are the things you would typically find after production. Maybe not to the level of detail that's happened in this experience, but when a system goes live, these are the things you continue to do, you continue to provide system builds and put performance tuning to the application to make sure it continues to improve time over time.


Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn: Do you maintain error logs?

All: Yes.

Blackburn: Can you submit them?

Campbell: "I will have to confer with CMS as to what documents we can and cannot provide."

Blackburn: "It would be interesting to see those error logs because we'd be able to see how many people are actually accessing these systems … and see where the security flaws might be."

No one else offered an answer before Blackburn's time expired.


Pallone forcefully mocked the hearing, prompting Upton to ask him to yield. Pallone refused and rose his voice: "No I will not yield to this monkey court or whatever it is."

A bit of a shouting match ensued before Pallone added: "Why are we going down this path? Because you are trying to scare people so they don't apply so the Affordable Care Act gets delayed or repealed."