New York Times - Contractors Describe Limited Testing of Insurance Web Site

January 29, 2014
In The News

By Robert Pear

Federal officials did not fully test the online health insurance marketplace until two weeks before it opened to the public on Oct. 1, contractors told Congress on Thursday.

While individual components of the system were tested earlier, they said, the government did not conduct “end-to-end-testing” of the system until late September.

The disclosure came at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating problems plaguing the federal marketplace, or exchange, a central pillar of President Obama’s health care overhaul. The hearing suggested that the team of contractors was more like an orchestra with scores of musicians playing different tunes and no conductor to lead the overall effort, set the tempo or unify the ensemble.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed anger and dismay at the contractors’ performance. The lawmakers said they felt misled because the same contractors testified at a hearing on Sept. 10 that the online marketplace was working properly and was ready to enroll millions of Americans eager to buy insurance, subsidized by the government.

The Obama administration was supposed to coordinate the work of the contractors on the federal insurance exchange. But witnesses had difficulty delineating their roles and responsibilities on the project, and they said the government was responsible for all the major decisions.

“There is a major league blame game going on,” said Representative Pete Olson, Republican of Texas.

Representative David B. McKinley, Republican of West Virginia, told the witnesses: “I haven’t heard one of you apologize to the American public on behalf of your company for the problems. Are apologies not in order? I haven’t heard the words ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

Executives from two contractors — CGI Federal, a unit of the CGI Group, and the UnitedHealth Group — said the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decided to open the exchange on Oct. 1 even though testing had raised concerns.

After the hearing, Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Medicare agency, said, “Due to a compressed time frame, the system was not tested enough.” She did not answer questions about whether the administration had considered delaying the debut of the online marketplace.

Politics pervaded the session. Republicans said that technical problems crippling the federal Web site epitomized fundamental flaws in the 2010 health care law, Mr. Obama’s most significant legislative achievement.

Democrats said that the law was fundamentally sound, and that the Web site needed to be fixed immediately so people could get the insurance they had been promised.

“Fix it, don’t nix it,” Democrats said.

Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, said: “Three weeks after the Web site went live, we are still hearing reports of significant problems. These problems need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed fast.”

Cheryl R. Campbell, a senior vice president of CGI Federal, the main contractor on the federal exchange, said that end-to-end testing of the full integrated system first occurred “in the last two weeks of September.”

Another witness, Andrew M. Slavitt of UnitedHealth, said, “We didn’t see full end-to-end testing until a couple of days leading up to the launch” of the federal marketplace on Oct. 1.

The UnitedHealth Group owns one of the nation’s largest insurance companies and also owns Quality Software Services Inc., which supervised “identity management,” including the use of password-protected accounts, in the federal marketplace.

Ms. Campbell and Mr. Slavitt said they would have preferred months of testing, in keeping with industry standards for a project of such immense complexity. The federal exchange must communicate with other contractors and with databases of numerous federal agencies and more than 170 insurance carriers.

The vision of affordable insurance for all Americans has been tarnished by technical problems that have made it difficult for consumers to shop in the federal marketplace serving 36 states.

Ms. Campbell said that CGI had continually reported to top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, including Michelle Snyder, the chief operating officer of the agency, and Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer.

In response to questions, Ms. Campbell said, “We were not responsible for end-to-end testing” of the whole system. The Medicare agency, known as C.M.S., was responsible, she said.

Mr. Slavitt said that his company had tested computer code for the federal marketplace and found errors in it. “We informed C.M.S. that more testing was necessary,” he said.

The contractors, like Mr. Obama, said the federal Web site,, had been inundated by more consumers than anticipated.

But Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California, called this “a lame excuse.”

“I represent Silicon Valley,” Ms. Eshoo said. “This is the 21st century. There are thousands of Web sites that handle concurrent volumes far larger than what was faced with. Amazon and eBay don’t crash the week before Christmas, and ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day.”

The contractors said the Obama administration decided in late September to block a feature of the Web site that allowed consumers to see the full unsubsidized prices of insurance plans without registering or creating personal accounts.

Republicans said the White House did not want consumers to be shocked by the high prices. Most people buying insurance on the exchange will qualify for subsidies that lower the costs.

Ms. Campbell of CGI said “we would be more than happy” to turn on this feature of the Web site if instructed to do so by the government.

Ms. Bataille said the Medicare agency had made “a business decision” to focus on other aspects of the Web site, so that consumers could file applications and enroll online.

Mr. Slavitt said his company was “one of many independent contractors” that tested computer code developed for use in the federal exchange.

Representative Bill Johnson, Republican of Ohio, said this arrangement defied common sense.

“How can you be an independent tester when you are an integral developer of part of the system?” Mr. Johnson asked. “How does that qualify you as independent?”