Senators seek IG probe of HealthCare.gov outages

screen capture of HealthCare.gov site 

Four Senate Democrats are urging the Health and Human Services inspector general to probe the planned schedule for HealthCare.gov downtime during the coming open enrollment period.

HHS announced there would be scheduled downtime on five of six Sundays from midnight to noon during the six-week enrollment period. An agency spokesperson told FCW that the maintenance outages were planned for the lowest traffic time periods.

"We are concerned that these extended maintenance outages will put a time squeeze on consumers seeking to buy health insurance from the federal HealthCare.gov site, especially when coupled with the administration's decision to cut the length of the open enrollment period in half," wrote Democratic Senators Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) Cory Booker (N.J.) and Chris Murphy (Conn.) in a Sept. 27 letter to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson.

"It is inexplicable that the system -- which will now be in its fifth year of operation -- would suddenly require orders of magnitude more downtime for maintenance," the senators wrote.

The lawmakers want Levinson to include system downtime as part of a planned assessment of federal systems that support purchasing health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Specifically, the senators want to know how downtime planned for the 2017 open enrollment period compares to maintenance outages in years past, whether HHS will reconsider the downtime schedule, what messages visitors to the HealthCare.gov site will see during outages, how the downtime periods were selected and whether HHS anticipates an impact on enrollment as a result of the outages.

In a separate letter to Seema Verma, director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the four lawmakers requested information on HealthCare.gov and marketplace call center operations, including details on precise reasons for the downtime and any consultation CMS conducted with states and other marketplace stakeholders and participants.

HealthCare.gov is the front door to a complex system that pings multiple government databases to determine user eligibility. Downtime on participating systems at IRS, the Department of Homeland Security, Social Security Administration and Department of Defense will result in downtime for HealthCare.gov.

Former HHS CIO Frank Baitman told FCW in an interview that during the Obama administration, the Office of Management and Budget convened meetings with system owners to schedule maintenance in such a way to minimize downtime for HealthCare.gov users.

An HHS spokesperson didn't respond to a question about whether similar practices had been instituted under the Trump administration.

This article was updated Sept. 27.

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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