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US investigation faults oversight of health care website

WASHINGTON — Management failures by the Obama administration set the stage for the computer woes that paralyzed the president’s new health care program last fall, nonpartisan investigators said in testimony released Wednesday.

Behind the administration’s repeated assurances that consumers across the land would soon have seamless access to health care, a chaotic procurement process was about to deliver a stumbling start.

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After a months-long investigation, the Government Accountability Office found that the administration lacked ‘‘effective planning or oversight practices’’ for the development of HealthCare.gov, the online portal to coverage for millions of uninsured Americans.

As a result the government incurred ‘‘significant cost increases, schedule slips, and delayed functionality,’’ William Woods, a GAO contracting expert, said in testimony prepared for a hearing Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

GAO is the nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress. Its full report is also expected Thursday.

Spokesman Aaron Albright said the administration takes its responsibility for contract oversight seriously and has already started carrying out improvements that go beyond GAO’s recommendations. The congressional investigators recommended a cost control plan and other changes to establish clear procedures and improve oversight.

Investigators found that the administration kept changing the contractors’ marching orders for the HealthCare.gov website, creating widespread confusion and leading to tens of millions of dollars in additional costs. Changes were ordered in seemingly arbitrary fashion, including 40 times when government officials did not have the initial authority to incur additional costs.

The report faults the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services — for ineffective oversight.

The Medicare agency, known as CMS, was designated to administer President Obama’s health care law.

GAO concluded:

 Contractors were not given a coherent plan, and instead they were kept jumping around from issue to issue.

 The cost of the sign-up system ballooned from $56 million to more than $209 million from September 2011 to February 2014. The cost of the electronic backroom jumped from $30 million to almost $85 million.

 CMS, representing the administration, failed to follow up on how well the contractors performed. At one point the agency notified one contractor it was so dissatisfied it would start withholding payments. Then it quickly rescinded that decision.

 The type of federal contract that the administration selected for HealthCare.gov was open-ended, which may have encouraged costly changes.

Two contractors took the lead on the computerized system:

Virginia-based CGI Federal built HealthCare.gov, the consumer-facing portal to subsidized private health insurance under the law. The site serves 36 states, while the remaining states built their own systems.

QSSI, based in Maryland, was responsible for an electronic back office that helps verify personal and financial information to determine if consumers are eligible for tax credits to help pay their premiums.

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