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Wednesday, December 17, 2014, 10:08 p.m.
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Administration blamed for woes of health website

Investigators releasing report

By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR The Associated Press

This article was published July 31, 2014 at 5:23 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Management failures by President Barack Obama's 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.

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, an accountability office contracting expert, said in testimony prepared for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing today.

The Government Accountability Office is the nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress. Its full report is expected today.

Spokesman Aaron Albright said the administration takes its responsibility for contract oversight seriously and has already started carrying out improvements that go beyond the office'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 willy-nilly 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 was designated to administer Obama's health care law.

The accountability office 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 Sept. 2011 to Feb. 2014. The cost of the electronic back office jumped from $30 million to almost $85 million.

• The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, representing the administration, failed to follow up on how well the contractors performed. At one point the agency notified one contractor that it was so dissatisfied that it would start withholding payments. Then it quickly rescinded that decision.

• The type of federal contract 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, with mixed results.

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.

The front end of the system locked up the same day it was launched, Oct. 1, and was down most of that initial month. The electronic back office had fewer problems.

Despite crippling problems with the part of the system used by consumers, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ultimately paid nearly all of CGI's $12.5 million in fees, withholding only $267,000, the accountability office said.

After the website's flawed rollout, the White House sent in management consultant Jeff Zients as a troubleshooter. He removed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as project leader and gave the agency a supporting role.

Agency administrator Marilyn Tavenner later apologized to Congress, saying that "the website has not worked as well as it should."

Zients' rescue operation got the site working by early December. Another major contractor, Accenture, was sent in to help fix things. Eventually, some 8 million people managed to sign up, far exceeding expectations.

Nonetheless, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stepped down amid complaints by White House officials that the president was blind-sided by the problems.

The original contractors testified to Congress that they did not have nearly enough time to test the system before it went live.

Indeed, Tavenner took the unusual step of signing the operational security certificate for healthcare.gov herself, after security professionals balked. The site has since passed full security testing.

The accountability office's findings amplified earlier conclusions in a report by Zients after his team got the website to work.

In addition to hundreds of software bugs, insufficient infrastructure and subpar monitoring of problems, the White House troubleshooter found "inadequate management oversight and coordination" that "prevented real-time decision making and efficient responses to address the issues."

A Section on 07/31/2014

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