Contractors Describe Patchwork of Efforts But Blame CMS for Bad Site Rollout

WASHINGTON – Contractors who worked on the troubled Obamacare website tried to dodge bullets amid political crossfire at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Thursday.

In her opening statement Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, took partial blame for’s problems. But she also noted that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was the “ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance” of the site.

CMS, an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was tasked with getting the online exchanges off the ground. The website, which Americans in 36 states can use to purchase their own health insurance plans, has come under scrutiny since it launched on Oct.1 for falling considerably short of expectations. Many users have had trouble signing on, getting accurate cost estimates, and completing enrollment on the website.

Campbell blamed a portion of the website created by another contractor, Quality Software Services (QSSI), for the initial bottleneck that prevented users from registering.

QSSI built part of the online registration system that crashed shortly after the Oct.1 launch and locked out many people for days. Andy Slavitt, representing QSSI’s parent company, countered that it was not the only one responsible for the registration system, which is now working. He blamed CMS, saying that a late decision to require consumers to create accounts before they could browse health plans contributed to the overload.

"This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the registration system that wouldn't have occurred if consumers could window-shop anonymously," he said.

He said the change was made within 10 days of the rollout, and his company suggested more testing would be needed.

“All of the concerns that we had, which were mostly related to testing and the inability to get as much testing as we would've liked, we expressed to CMS throughout the project,” he said.

But Slavitt did not elaborate on what those concerns were.

Republicans have suggested the late switch requiring users to sign in was initiated by the White House to prevent browsers from experiencing “sticker shock” over the costs of the insurance policies. In a letter, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) accused the White House of injecting politics into decisions about the website. The GOP letter cites testimony from top officials at CGI.

“Did the White House ever order your company for political reasons to mask sticker shock of Obamacare by disabling this anonymous shopper function?” asked Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), referring to Issa’s letter.

“I don't believe that members of CGI actually made those statements directly in that manner. I think they may have been taken out of context,” Campbell responded.

“And to my knowledge, no, the White House has not given us direct instructions,” she added.

When Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) asked the contractors whether there were concerns the site was not ready to go live, Campbell said: “It was not our position to tell our client whether they should go live or not go live.”

“This is more than a website problem. And frankly, the website should have been the easy part,” Upton said. “This is a troubling fact, but we still don’t know the real picture, as the administration appears allergic to transparency.”

Republican committee members said the website problems are part of deeper flaws in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and they accused the Obama administration of misleading Congress with repeated assurances that the rollout was on track.