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Health website not fully tested, contractors say

Contractors testified on Thursday before Congress about the rollout of the online health insurance marketplace.

MICHAEL REYNOLDS /EPA

Contractors testified on Thursday before Congress about the rollout of the online health insurance marketplace.

WASHINGTON — Federal officials did not fully test the online health insurance marketplace until two weeks before it opened to the public 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 whole system from start to finish until late September.

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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 contractors suggested that they were more like an orchestra, with scores of musicians playing different tunes and no conductor to lead the 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 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 contractors had difficulty delineating their roles 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, a Texas Republican.

Representative David B. McKinley, a West Virginia Republican, 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.’ ”

Officials from two contractors, CGI Federal and UnitedHealth Group, said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decided to open the exchange 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 website epitomized fundamental flaws in the 2010 health care law. Democrats said that the law was sound, and that the website needed to be fixed immediately so that people could get insurance.

“Three weeks after the website went live, we are still hearing reports of significant problems,” said Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat. “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 end-to-end testing until a couple days leading up to the launch.”

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

Campbell and Slavitt said they would have preferred to have months of testing, as required by 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 rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been tarnished by technical problems that have made it difficult for consumers to shop in the federal marketplace serving 36 states.

Campbell said that CGI continually reported to top officials at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, including Michelle Snyder, the chief operating officer of the agency, and Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer. Those officials made critical decisions about the federal exchange, Campbell said.

In response to questions, Campbell said: “We were not responsible for end-to-end testing” of the entire system. The Medicare agency, known as CMS, was responsible, she said.

Slavitt said that his company had tested computer code for the federal marketplace and had found problems.

“We informed CMS that more testing was necessary,” he said.

The contractors said the federal website, HealthCare.gov, had been inundated by more consumers than anticipated.

But Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat, called that a lame excuse.

“I represent Silicon Valley,” Eshoo said. “This is the 21st century. There are thousands of websites that handle concurrent volumes far larger than what HealthCare.gov was faced with.

“Amazon and eBay don’t crash the week before Christmas, and ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day.”

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