Sebelius takes responsibility for Obamacare system failures

Under scrutiny from lawmaker, the HHS secretary answers some key questions, but others remain open.

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.

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