Sebelius takes responsibility for Obamacare system failures

health data

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for failures in the launch of HealthCare.gov and owned up to some potential security risks posed by the site over the course of three-and-a-half hours of testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible," Sebelius told lawmakers during the hearing, held Oct. 30. She testified that she expected fixes to be in place within a month; that is the timeframe promised by Jeffrey Zients, the former administration official tapped to oversee repairs to the system.

The hearing took place against the backdrop of a persistent outage of the HealthCare.gov site traced to a problem with cloud hosting service Terremark Verizon.

A decision to eliminate a function allowing users to browse plans before registering an account was made to avoid putting stress on the system, Sebelius told the panel. Decisions to postpone the launch of the Spanish-language website and other pieces of the overall HealthCare.gov service were made along the same lines. Officials in the  Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the HHS component that administers the health care law, made those decisions, she said.

The move seems "ironic at this point," Sebelius acknowledged.

Sebelius also released some new spending figures: So far, she said, $118 million has been spent on the website and $52 million on support.

But she steadfastly refused to release enrollment figures, saying that flaws in the online system were responsible for that data not being available.

Other key questions also went unanswered.

For one, how the government will compensate Quality Software Services Inc., the contractor tapped to act as integrator while fixes are being introduced, for its new role in the system is still under discussion, she said.

She also would not say whether HHS or CMS received advice on delaying the Oct. 1 launch of the online marketplace. Sebelius said the contracting partners did not anticipate the scope of the failures of the site, and that no senior official reporting directly to her recommended a delay. But that statement could exclude the CIO shop at CMS, which was the government office closest to the project.

Separately, an internal document from CGI Federal released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee suggests that the contractor charged with building much of HealthCare.gov was looking for a way to do more testing.

"Due to the compressed schedule, there is not enough time built in to allow for adequate performance testing," the document stated. It listed as a priority to "work with CMS to determine to determine if any shifts can be made to allow for more time for performance testing."

It was also revealed in the hearing that the site launched -- and continues to be updated -- with known security risks. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee and is a leader on cybersecurity issues, introduced a document from inside CMS that pointed to some of the risks entailed by launching without adequate testing.

"Due to system readiness issues the [Security Control Assessment] was only partly completed. This constitutes a risk that must be accepted and mitigated to support the Marketplace Day 1 operations," the memo stated. As a result, the system received only a temporary security authorization. CMS ordered the creation of a security team to monitor risk, and a subsequent test between 60 and 90 days after launch.

Under questioning from Rogers, Sebelius said she didn't know whether the overnight updates of code into the system were subject to security tests that extended to the full HealthCare.gov system.

"Clearly, I am not hot-swapping code," Sebelius said.

"You accepted a risk on behalf of every person that used this computer that put their personal and financial information at risk because you did not even have the most basic end-to-end test on security of this system," Rogers said. "Amazon would never do this. ProFlowers would never do this. Kayak would never do this."

Software patches are big part of technical updates to the system. According to an Oct. 29 CMS announcement, a patch release included fixes to bugs that were preventing existing users from logging into accounts. Additionally, the system was moved to a high-capacity physical database, designed to speed the system. CMS said it is now able to process 17,000 new account registrations per hour. Additionally, CMS reported optimized software configurations designed to help the disparate parts of the system interact with each other.

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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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Fri, Nov 1, 2013

The announced Fix to this over Bloomberg this AM contains a Weak link that will come back to haunt the current administration for many years and cost a fortune to correct. When he tells you 2 weeks before the maint-svc contract is due to start that the new rate has increased 10 fold - you will understand the nature of, and impact of this type of lack-of-due-diligence.

Thu, Oct 31, 2013

The bad PR could of been avoided IF someone with a clue, had of just looked at/reviewed the service contracts requirements. There are a number of well qualified PEO's that could of taken this on within their spare time without a hiccup, and at least three prime IT service contractors that I know could of all so setup and administered this with no problem. Accountability for Major program IT project oversight starts with the Fed-CIO and down thru the CIO chain to the designated project PEO.

Thu, Oct 31, 2013

I love how the statements and stories keep changing on this subject. But at that level it does not matter how messed up you are/did, as long as you hold to the party line of the moment you will be rewarded with a position elsewhere to escape the limelight.

Thu, Oct 31, 2013 OccupyIT

1. "Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible," Sebelius told lawmakers There is some serious language control here. First, why is testimony in front of Congress considered therapy and not accountability? Ms. Sebilius, if you consider yourself accountable for the correctly termed ‘debacle’ then resign. Otherwise, save the drama queen act for your lucrative memoirs. Given the testimony of DHS officials so far it is hard to consider them anything but disingenuous. 2. …no senior official reporting directly to her recommended a delay. But that statement could exclude the CIO shop at CMS, which was the government office closest to the project. ‘Reporting directly to her?’ Do we now have to ask if someone NOT reporting directly to her told her and she ignored – What is with the parsing? And now we’d like to portray the direct hires as only proximate to the Program? They decided to be their own system integrator. This was not a drive-by management shooting! THEY RAN THE PROJECT; they weren’t just NEAR the project. Are their independent sleeper cells of IT folks that happened to get their hands on the core IT support for the largest new entitlement and taxation Program in the last few decades? 3. "Clearly, I am not hot-swapping code," Sebelius said. Why is this the only thing you appear to have enough direct knowledge of to say ‘Clearly’ and have us believe it? You didn’t know it didn’t work but you did know you weren’t ‘hot-swapping code’? Or is this another parsing exercise where in fact you’re really saying that you personally did not hot-swap code? This is what your contractors are saying, under oath, they were directed to do, despite warnings from them, in order to meet the unrealistic deadline. 4. Software patches are big part of technical updates to the system. I don’t think most IT professional would consider something a ‘patch’ if the system was not functional to begin with. This language appears to be trying to minimize the activity that was taking place at the time. Moving the system to a new database platform is not a ‘patch’ either. These are high risk, high pressure activities to be undertaking during a rollout of a system, much less one of this scope and complexity. I would consider it reckless in the extreme and symptomatic of what is called a ‘death march’ mindset for the team. We are going to do this or die trying. Still waiting for the dying part... I'm guessing no Feds will be harmed in the making of this movie

Thu, Oct 31, 2013

Sebelius can try to take responsibility, but the entire program was a mess the minute the law was passed. Computer systems rely on logic to operate so when given a task that was fully emotional, convoluted politics, and corrupt to boot, there was no way the system could be put relatively quickly together to operate smoothly. Just wait until the employer mandate is kicked in and you will see an even bigger mess.

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