House panel demands health exchange answers

U.S. Capitol at Night with Trees

A powerful committee of the House of Representatives wants answers about the computer failures and long wait times that greeted insurance shoppers seeking coverage under the 2010 health care law when the online exchanges launched Oct. 1.

A letter from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.)., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and 14 panel Republicans asks Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the IT contractors responsible for the computer systems behind the health care exchanges that the law establishes to provide details on the testing of computer systems prior to the open enrollment date.

"Despite the widespread belief that the administration was not ready for the health law's Oct. 1 launch, top officials and lead IT contractors looked us in the eye and assured us all systems were a go. Instead, here we are 10 days later, and delays and technical failures have reached epidemic proportions," Upton said.

Executives at CGI Federal, which built the federally facilitated marketplace (FFM) that supports the purchase of insurance plans for the 36 states that don't have their own exchanges, and Quality Software Services Inc., which built the data hub that loops in federal databases to confirm eligibility, told Congress on Sept. 10 that their systems would be ready for the Oct. 1 open enrollment data.

The committee is seeking specific information on the testing and changes made to the FFM and data hub, and post-launch emails between contractors and HHS analyzing system flaws and discussing fixes.

Despite assurances from contractors and officials, there were signals that all was not well with the IT piece of the health insurance exchanges. "We are under 200 days from open enrollment and I'm pretty nervous," Henry Chao, deputy CIO of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said at an insurance industry event in March. The most recent IT Dashboard information, current to the end of August, designates the FFM and data hub as medium-risk projects.

Users of HealthCare.gov continue to encounter problems creating accounts and shopping for insurance plans. Three-quarters of those who tried to use the online exchange encountered problems, according to an AP-GfK poll released Oct. 10. Seven percent of respondents said that they or a household member tried to sign up for health insurance. But just 40 percent of poll respondents said the opening of the insurance markets has gone poorly, despite a steady stream of media reports documenting the barrage of IT failures of Healthcare.gov that have thwarted enrollment. If the poll accurately reflects public opinion, the government might have a grace period to right the ship in time to attract the sought after 7 million enrollees by Dec. 15.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, are also seeking information from Sebelius on enrollment numbers and software defects and details on who is responsible for introducing the defects and how they were identified and fixed. Issa and Alexander are also looking for an explanation of why the designers of the system failed to accurately project the demand for the service.

There's no word yet on the numbers of successful applicants. HHS has declined to publicize figures. On a "Daily Show" appearance, Sebelius told host Jon Stewart that the department didn't have numbers. Spokespeople have indicated that statistics would be released monthly, but not when the first release would be.


About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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