NBC News - Obamacare site builders grilled by House hearing

January 30, 2014
In The News

By Erin McClam

Top executives of the companies that built the troubled Obamacare website were grilled by Congress on Thursday about the glitches that have plagued the system since it opened earlier this month.

While the executives said that the site was improving every day and that Americans would still be able to meet a Dec. 15 deadline to enroll for health insurance for next year, representatives demanded to know how the errors happened.

Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat, took issue with assertions by the companies and the Obama administration that one reason for the problems was overwhelming traffic on the site from people trying to enroll for coverage.

"Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas," Eshoo said. "ProFlowers doesn't crash on Valentine's Day."

The executives went before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is looking into what its chairman called "problems, crashes, glitches, system failures that have defined open enrollment" in the health care overhaul, President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement.

Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the committee, said the site was "nothing short of a disaster." He expressed frustration that administration officials and federal contractors had reassured the committee as recently as September that everything was fine.

"This is more than a website problem," Upton said. "And, frankly, the website should have been the easy part."

Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, the lead federal contractor on the project, told a House committee that Americans should still be able to meet the December deadline.

"The system is working. People are enrolling," she said. "But people will be able to enroll at a faster pace. The experience will be improved as they go forward."

She acknowledged that the "issues arising in the federal exchange made the enrollment process difficult for too many Americans."

The executives were pressed on the problems they saw in the system before the launch. But they said it was the government, not the companies, that decided to go forward with the launch on Oct. 1.

"We did talk about the risks that we saw, and we passed those all along the way," said Andrew Slavitt, an executive with Optum, another federal contractor that worked on the site.

Campbell said: "We were there to support our client. It is not our position to tell our client whether to go live."

Four-and-a-half hours into the hearing, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., expressed frustration that he had not heard an apology from any of the executives testifying before the committee.

After an exchange with Campbell, McKinley said: "I've not heard the word 'I'm sorry.' I know men have a hard time saying that." Two men and two women were testifying.

The statement came as McKinley's time for questioning expired, and Campbell did not respond. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the top Democrat on the committee, interjected to McKinley: "Can we get an apology for shutting down the government because people didn't like the health care bill?"

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., questioned the legitimacy of the hearing itself and suggested that Republicans were simply trying to scare Americans into staying away from the system altogether.

"That's all it is," he said. "Hoping people won't apply."

He reminded the committee that many Americans are enrolling through state insurance exchanges, including 30,000 in New York, 50,000 in Oregon and 100,000 in California.

The White House said this week that there have been 20 million visits to the site and half a million applications for insurance submitted. But how many people that represents, and how many have successfully enrolled, is unknown.

Problems with the site, healthcare.gov, are well-documented. One survey found that only 1 in 5 people who tried to log on did it without a hitting roadblock. A quarter couldn't even create an account. The Spanish-language version of the site is delayed.

On the back end, insurers have reported that they are receiving incomplete or corrupted applications that they cannot process, and states are having trouble accessing the federal data.

"We are in the process of making corrections," Campbell, of CGI Federal, said Thursday of the data problem. "Most of them are isolated. They're not across the board for all insurers. We are working on solving those as they come to our attention."

The administration has said technicians are well into the job of fixing the site, but it has given no timetable.

"There's no sugarcoating it," Obama said Monday. "The website has been too slow. People have been getting struck during the application process. And I think it's fair to say that nobody is more frustrated than I am."

White House officials, including Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, are to testify next week. Republicans have called for Sebelius to resign because of the troubled rollout of the health law.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in Phoenix after she visited a call center for health care sign-ups, Sebelius said those calls were being made by "people I don't work for and don't want the program to work in the first place."

Some Democrats have been critical, too. Rep. Richard Nolan, D-Minn., told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it was time for Obama to "man up, find out who was responsible and fire them."