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Red flags were seen on federal health website

Builders point to late tweaks

President Obama’s longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients will provide management advice to help fix the health insurance website.

Larry Downing/Reuters/file

President Obama’s longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients will provide management advice to help fix the health insurance website.

WASHINGTON — Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration’s showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.

As questions mount over the website’s failure, insider interviews and a review of technical specifications by the Associated Press found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers who pushed out a final product that congressional investigators said was tested by the government and not private developers with more expertise.

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Meanwhile, the White House said that President Obama’s longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients will provide management advice to help fix the system. White House press secretary Jay Carney says Zients will be on a short-term assignment at the Health and Human Services Department before he’s due to take over as director of Obama’s National Economic Council on Jan. 1.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a post on HealthCare.gov that her agency is also bringing in more specialists from government and industry, including top Silicon Valley companies.

Project developers for the health care website who spoke on condition of anonymity — because they feared they would otherwise be fired — said they raised doubts among themselves whether the website could be ready in time. They complained openly to one another about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines. One was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time, one developer said. Website builders saw red flags for months.

A review of internal architectural diagrams revealed the system’s complexity. Insurance applicants have a host of personal information verified, including income and immigration status.

The system connects to other federal computer networks, including ones at the Social Security Administration, IRS, Veterans Administration, Office of Personnel Management, and the Peace Corps.

Programmers complained openly to one another about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines.

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Obama has acknowledged technical problems that he described as ‘‘kinks in the system.’’ But in remarks at a Rose Garden event on Monday, Obama offered no explanation for the failure except to note that high traffic to the website caused some of the slowdowns. He said it had been visited nearly 20 million times — fewer monthly visits so far than many commercial websites.

Just weeks before the launch of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1, one programmer said, colleagues huddled in conference rooms trying to patch deficiencies in computer code. Unresolved problems led to visitors experiencing cryptic error messages or enduring long waits trying to sign up.

Congressional investigators have concluded that the government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not private software developers, tested the exchange’s computer systems during the final weeks. That task, known as integration testing, is usually handled by software companies because it ferrets out problems before the public sees the final product.

The government spent at least $394 million in contracts to build the federal health care exchange and the data hub. Those contracts included major awards to Virginia-based CGI Federal Inc., Maryland-based Quality Software Services Inc., and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.

Uninsured Americans have until about mid-February to sign up for coverage if they are to meet the law’s requirement that they be insured by the end of March.

If they don’t, they will face a penalty.

The administration says it’s working to address the timing issue to provide more flexibility.

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