Management

Behind the scenes at the HealthCare.gov tech surge

Early HealthCare.gov Screenshot

President Barack Obama was considering scrapping the HealthCare.gov website and starting from scratch just weeks after its disastrous Oct. 1 launch, according to Time magazine’s inside look at the six-week tech surge to fix the site.

Obama was unable to get reliable information on the website from top advisors, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Director Marilyn Tavenner, and White House health policy lead Jeanne Lambrew, according to the Steven Brill-authored piece.

Apparently, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Lambrew were assured by CMS that the site was ready. It turns out, Brill writes, that "no one in the White House meetings leading up to the launch had any idea whether the technology worked.”

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Jeff Zients, the management consultant who has subsequently taken over as director of Obama's National Economic Council, was tapped in mid-October to lead a team to fix the site by the end of November. The effort eventually included:

  • Todd Park, who told Time, "On Oct. 17, I went from White House CTO to full-time HealthCare.gov fixer."
  • Marty Abbott, former CTO of eBay
  • Gabriel Burt, CTO of Chicago firm Civis Analytics, which built some of the analytics tools used by Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.
  • Mike Abbott, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who is credited with fixing Twitter's technology when it suffered from frequent outages.
  • Mikey Dickerson, an engineer on leave from Google.
  • White House innovation fellow Ryan Panchadsaram.

The group set up shop in Columbia, Md., in the offices of HealthCare.gov general contractor Quality Software Service, Inc. Their first task was to build a dashboard, the absence of which astonished veteran engineers, to monitor traffic on the site. Abbott, who took on the role of project manager, said engineers at the contractors were eager to fix the site, even if executives were dodging ownership and accountability.

"Nothing I saw was beyond repair. Yes, it was messed up. Software wasn't built to talk to other software, stuff like that. A lot of that was because they had made the most basic mistake you can ever make. The government is not used to shipping products to consumers. You never open a service like this to everyone at once. You open it in small concentric circles and expand, so you can watch it, fix it and scale it," Abbott said.

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