The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Massive Glitches and Monkey Courts

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


There were fireworks today at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing on the roll out of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.  The hearing, entitled, “PPACA Implementation Failures: Didn’t Know or Didn’t Disclose?” questioned representatives from the major contractors that constructed the portal or website that is supposed to help individuals enroll in Obamacare.  The witnesses were:

Cheryl Campbell, Senior Vice President, CGI Federal –Testimony here

  • CGI Federal is the contractor that has developed a portion of the Federal Exchange, the software application known as the Federally Facilitated Marketplace or “FFM.”

Andrew Slavitt, Group Executive Vice President, Optum/QSSI – Testimony here

  • Optum/QSSI designed the Data Services Hub. This is the large, complex system that transfers data – routing queries and responses between a given marketplace and various trusted data sources.

Lynn Spellecy, Corporate Counsel, Equifax Workforce Solutions – Testimony here

  • Equifax Workforce Solutions provides income verification to the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) once consent has been given from the applicant to CMS to do so.

John Lau, Program Director, Serco – Testimony here

  • Serco oversees the Eligibility Support Services. Currently the company is focused on paper applications and eventually will undertake error and issue resolution on all applications regardless of the manner in they are submitted.

Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich) opened the hearing and said:

Today the Energy and Commerce Committee continues our ongoing oversight of the health care law as we examine the many problems - crashes, glitches, systems failures - that have defined open enrollment.

Over the months leading up to the October 1 launch, top administration officials and lead contractors appeared before this committee, looked us in the eye, and assured us repeatedly that everything was “on track.”

Except that it wasn’t, as we now know all too well.

So why did they assure us the website would work? Did they not know? Or did they not disclose? That’s what we are looking to find out, with the contractors today, and with Secretary Sebelius next week.

The companies that are here today all testified before the Health Subcommittee on September 10 about their work building the federal exchanges and healthcare.gov. In that hearing, and in briefings with committee staff, these companies represented that the exchanges would be ready for open enrollment on October 1. They also explained that their testing of the system had not identified any significant problems."

Certainly the hearing was political with the Republicans reminding the public of the problems with Obamacare in general and why they have continually opposed it.  For the most part, the Republicans tried to focus on why the system failed, who was in charge of making the system work, and why they were told in a hearing held on September 10 that everything was working fine.

The Democrats generally accused the Republicans of not really wanting to fix the problems in Obamacare and that they were more interested in playing “gotcha politics.”  Several said it would be better if Congress worked together to make the system work.  Democrat members reminded the Republicans of the problems with the start-up of Medicare Part D and that it is working smoothly now.  They too expressed criticism with the current Obamacare on-line system and were not pleased that prior assurances that the system was ready-to-go turned out to be wrong.

Frank Pallone (D-NJ) was critical of Republicans governors, including his own governor, that refused to set up an exchange in their states.  He got into a heated discussion with Joe Barton’s (R-TX) concern with privacy issues and the requirements of HIPAA – the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and called the entire hearing a “monkey court.”

The Democrats reiterated that HIPAA regulations do not come into play with respect to applying for a plan because health information is not shared.  But Republicans were more concerned about general security concerns beyond HIPAA since the entire system is handling and sharing private information such as social security numbers, income, citizenship, credit information, etc. with numerous entities.

In general, the contractors said they had tested their individual components of the entire system and all their respective parts were working properly a month ago.  What they did not do was test the entire system “end to end.”  That testing was the responsibility of CMS and did not occur until two weeks before the launch date.  At that time the website failed but CMS made the decision to go ahead.  Why?

A possible reason may be found in a question asked by Rep. Butterfield (D-NC). He asked the CGI witness about a letter sent from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to administration officials that queried whether political considerations, directed from the White House, came into play to prevent citizens from simply shopping and reviewing health insurance plans without filling out an application first.  (The purpose according to news reports supposedly was to make sure individuals who might be eligible for subsidies saw the subsidized price first of a plan and not suffer from sticker shock.)

CGI could not respond with confidence to any meetings her colleagues may have had with the O & G committee or political orders from the White House. She said the decision to remove the “anonymous shopping feature” came from CMS two weeks before the Oct. 1 launch date.

In many cases, the witnesses could not answer specific questions, particularly if it concerned conversations or memorandum with CMS officials, unless they get the agency’s permission. Their reluctance to provide the information is based on their signed contracts with CMS.

Generally nothing new was discovered that hadn’t already been reported in the press.  No doubt the finger pointing of whom to blame for the fiasco will continue.  Next week, on Oct. 30, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify.  That hearing will be the one to watch.

CSPAN provides access to the Oct 24 hearing here.

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