On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled four witnesses representing the technical contractors who helped build Healthcare.gov over what went wrong with the beleaguered website, which has been plagued with long wait times, occasionally displays inaccurate information about subsidies, and has been reported to send faulty data to insurers on the back end. Here’s what we learned from the over four hour long hearing:
The contractors would have preferred more extensive testing — and at least one relayed his concerns to the government.
Of the four contractors who were represented at the hearing — CGI Federal, Optum/QSSI, Equifax Workforce Solutions, and Serco — witnesses from the two companies most extensively involved with building the website admitted that far more testing should have been carried out before Healthcare.gov launched on October 1st.
Optum executive vice president Andy Slavitt testified that his firm had informed the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) — the federal agency tasked with fusing the website’s separate functions into one cohesive product — that Healthcare.gov could experience some problems on its launch date without more “integrated” or “end-to-end” testing. “There were risks that we saw, and we passed those along, all along the way,” said Slavitt.
Although each contractor successfully tested the parts of the website it was responsible for designing, CMS conducted the final and most important tests integrating the various moving parts just two weeks before the site went live. Contractors had expected that testing to take place between September 10 and September 30, and the late test produced massive errors when CMS emulated a couple hundred people trying to enroll through the site, according to CGI Federal senior vice president Cheryl Campbell.
Campbell and Slavitt both said that the final end-to-end testing should have started “well before” it did and gone on for “several months” rather than just two weeks in order to work out the kinks. Both said that they did not make any recommendations as to whether or not CMS should launch on schedule despite the potential problems. “We simply made everyone aware of the risks that we saw,” said Slavitt.
CMS changed a key site feature at the last minute that may have contributed to Obamacare’s bumpy rollout.
Slavitt and Campbell also testified that CMS made a last minute decision to turn off a key feature allowing consumers to anonymously browse and compare plans in their area just two weeks before the site’s launch. Without that feature in place, Americans had to first create accounts before proceeding to the next steps in the process.
But that small move resulted in some big unintended consequences. “After the launch, Healthcare.gov was inundated with much more traffic than we anticipated,” said Slavitt. That unexpected surge of consumers visiting the site and simultaneously being forced to create accounts led to a bottleneck effect that overloaded the system and locked thousands of Americans out of the website for at least the first week.
Slavitt says Optum has addressed some of those capacity issues, and Healthcare.gov now does allow you to browse plans without making an account first.
Reports of insurers receiving incorrect or incomplete information from Healthcare.gov applications might be overstated.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff reported that Healthcare.gov was sending incorrect information to insurance companies about the Americans who made it through the entire Obamacare application process. For instance, some insurers were receiving applications with blank data fields, while others reported forms that listed flat-out wrong information, such as whether or not an applicant had dependent children.
But CGI Federal’s Campbell said that she had seen “a number of those scenarios,” but “not many.” “It is more isolated than widespread,” she said. That’s great news for Obamacare if it’s true, since garbled insurance applications truly would be a train wreck for the health law.
The contractors remain optimistic that Americans will be able to enroll in health plans by December.
The contractors voiced optimism when pressed by committee members on whether or not Healthcare.gov’s various woes would keep Americans from enrolling in insurance plans. Campbell said that she had teams working “24 hours a day” to fix the problems, and that consumers will see the process improve day-to-day.
“We anticipate people will be able to enroll… by the December 15 timeframe,” said Campbell.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is expected to testify about Obamacare in front of the House next week.