The PJ Tatler

Did Pollyanna Design HealthCare.gov?

A remarkable story in the Washington Post about the behind-the-scenes turmoil at CMS in the weeks leading up to the launch of HealthCare.gov.

It seems incredible, but the main contractor on the project — CGI Federal — was so overly optimistic about progress being made in constructing the site that they were able to snow CMS officials and make them think that things were going a lot more smoothly than they actually were.

At a meeting in Baltimore just five weeks before the rollout, administration officials nervously questioned CGI executives about what was really happening. Let’s just say that CGI’s presentation wasn’t entirely accurate:

For that day and the next, CGI staff huddled with government officials in the semicircular conference room at the headquarters of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency overseeing the project. They combed through 15 pages of spreadsheets they had brought, which spelled out the company’s level of confidence — high, medium or low — that individual components would be ready.

By the time HealthCare.gov launched 51/2 weeks later, many of those predictions proved wrong, according to internal documents obtained by The Washington Post and officials familiar with the project.

A final “pre-flight checklist” before the Web site’s Oct. 1 opening, compiled a week before by CMS, shows that 41 of 91 separate functions that CGI was responsible for finishing by the launch were still not working.

And a spreadsheet produced by CGI, dated the day of the launch, shows that the company acknowledged about 30 defects on features scheduled to have been working already, including five that it classified as “critical.” For instance, one critical defect was that people who had finished creating applications — an early step in enrolling — got incorrect messages that their applications were incomplete if they tried to sign back in.

All told, of the 45 items in which CGI had expressed high confidence at the late August meeting in Baltimore, most were still not ready by the time consumers were supposed to be able to start to buy health plans online through the federal marketplace, according to a government official familiar with the project who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private information.

During those crucial final weeks before the marketplace opened, the official said, CGI often delivered components on time, but they contained such faulty computer code that features did not hold up under closer scrutiny — or failed later if more than several thousand people at a time tried to use them. These included essential but arcane parts of the Web site, as well as facets that have attracted substantial public and congressional attention, such as a feature — still not working — that was supposed to let insurance-seekers browse the health plans available to them without first registering for an online account.

It was either Pollyanna or Mata Hari who was in on the construction of this clown-car screw-up of a website. Such a level of incompetence is rare, even for government work. Imagine a similar method of construction being applied to an F-15. We’d wonder if the contractor was actually working for the enemy.

By no means does this let the administration off the hook as far as responsibility for the disastrous rollout — not when the dolts at CMS realized a few weeks before the site went live that someone forgot to let a contract to build a key part of the website’s architecture:

The documents dated in August – less than two months before the opening of online marketplaces established by President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law – showed the agency in charge had only “recently learned” that building the financial management functions was “beyond (its) currently available resources.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) documents shed more light on the problems facing the agency as it worked on the marketplaces established by the law commonly called Obamacare and on its revelation this week that at least 30 percent of the marketplace is still being built.

Those problems and others have been revealed by congressional oversight investigators who released emails and outside reports that paint an administration scrambling to meet the technological challenges of the marketplace – and usually failing to do so.

CMS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said on Friday and on Saturday that representatives of the agency were unavailable to comment on the contract or on an estimate of when the financial management part of the marketplace is expected to be finished.

Although the consumer-facing part of the marketplace, the HealthCare.gov website, opened for enrollments on Oct. 1, CMS had a goal of Jan. 1, 2014 for the financial components of the system to be operational.

“The prospect of a delay…even for a few days, would result in severe consequences, financial and other,” CMS said in a “justification and approval” document explaining the lack of competition for the contract.

The contract, valued at nearly $12 million, was awarded on Aug. 9 to Novitas Solutions, according to the documents. Novitas has numerous contracts with CMS, including to administer doctor and hospital claims in the federal Medicare program for elderly Americans.

No-bid contracts, contractors lying to CMS about progress, vital components of the website forgotten about, and a near hysterical optimism that if we just wish really, really hard, everything will come out alright in the end.

Our government — and our health — are in the best of hands