The PJ Tatler

Did HHS' Project Chief Lie to Congress About's 'Anonymous Shopper' Function?

To answer the question posed in the headline, yes, or at least, it looks at this point as if he did. CNN has obtained documents that throw the honesty of HHS project chief Henry Chao into question. was supposed to have an “Anonymous Shopper” function that would have allowed healthcare shoppers to compare prices and plans in the Obamacare exchange without having to input all their personal data first. Anonymous Shopper is a standard experience of online shopping, the kind of shopping President Obama promised the exchanges would deliver. It’s window shopping, of the kind that Americans go online to do every day. But when launched on October 1, Anonymous Shopper was not there. The only way to shop for health insurance in the site was to create an account and input one’s personal data first. As has been reportedly endlessly since October 1, account creation hasn’t worked well at all. The administration is only hinting that it will work for 80% of’s users by the end of November.

When he testified before Congress on the debacle on November 1, Chao was asked what happened to Anonymous Shopper. Chao told Congress, under oath, that Anonymous Shopper was scrapped because “it failed so miserably that we could not conscionably let people use it.”

But according to the documents CNN obtained, Anonymous Shopper actually passed its tests. It had a few flaws but worked just fine.

Yet a CMS document made public by the same committee last week tells a different story. The agency and one of its subsidiaries, the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, was working with government contractors on the website. It determined the Anonymous Shopper feature “tested successfully,” revealed “no high severity defects open” and that “remaining lower severity defects will not degrade consumer experience.”

CMS raised questions about the “tested successfully” denotation for the feature in a statement.

In it, a spokeswoman writes: “‪CMS believes that the ‘yes’ that is written on the document in question is likely an error, because the same document also lists a number of ongoing defects and problems with the tool. Additional defects were communicated and discussed in other settings.”

‪The source close to the project, however, said the anonymous shopper function did pass testing conducted in the weeks ahead of the launch.

“This document reflects one point in time that was part of a series of ongoing updates and monitoring,” Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for HHS, said in a written statement.

The successful test occurred on September 17, according to a source familiar with the project. The next day, in an internal e-mail obtained by CNN, Chao wrote the shopper function “isn’t needed and thus should be removed.”

So it passes its test September 17, two weeks before’s launch. But Chao scraps it anyway. Chao told Congress that Anonymous Shopper still had 20 defects that forced him to keep the tool offline. But CNN’s source says there were on 12 issues, and they were minor and could have been fixed between Sept 17 and October 1. Instead of fixing the tool, CMS redirected the contractor to fix a different part of the site.

On September 12 and 18, federal health officials instructed CGI, the contractor hired to create the Anonymous Shopper feature, to concentrate on a part of the website called “Plan Compare,” rather than the window shopping feature, according to a document that CNN obtained.

“Plan Compare” allows users to look at health insurance plans only after they have created an account at, verified their identification and provided qualification details for a subsidy.

The decision to scrap Anonymous Shopper, which was working better than the rest of defective, sounds like it was made to prevent millions of Americans and reporters — and mostly, the latter — from going onto right after launch and experiencing massive sticker shock from Obamacare’s rate hikes.

While the administration is supposedly fixing around the clock, Anonymous Shopper remains offline. Instead we have “Plan Preview” online, which is nothing like what Anonymous Shopper was supposed to be.

The “Plan Preview” tool was added to the site October 10, amid criticism there was no window shopping feature. But it only includes two age categories for estimates — “49 or under” and “50 or older” — and has been criticized for providing wildly varied cost estimates.

“It’s not as good as Anonymous Shopper,” Karp told CNN. “It doesn’t provide the full experience of anonymous shopping that was recommended” in the prototype CMS encouraged state exchanges to adopt, adding that the online window shopping tool “still remains a key component, particularly to filter plans in states where there are so many plans.”

Seven weeks after’s launch, the Anonymous Shopper tool is still shelved.

And the clincher: HHS won’t even tell CNN when it intends to have Anonymous Shopper online. Chances are, it won’t be fixed by the end of November, when the media will be taking another hard look at

h/t Hot Air