WASHINGTON - Contractors who built the troubled health care website faced heated questioning Thursday from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as Congress held the first of what is expected to be many hearings aimed at understanding the problems with the HealthCare.gov site.
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Politics, however, echoed throughout a hearing that delved into technical issues that threaten to tarnish the legacy of President Obama's signature domestic achievement.
Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, told the committee that the Obama administration ultimately bears responsibility as the "systems integrator or quarterback on this project." She and other contractors testified that confusion among the tech firms, as well as high demand for health insurance, led to problems with the website.
When the tech contractors were asked by Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., whether they recommended delaying the Oct. 1 launch of the website to the administration, they indicated it was not up to them.
"It was not our decision to go live," Campbell said, saying such a call was up to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). That agency was tasked with spearheading the project for the Obama administration because of its work with Medicare and Medicaid.
Andrew Slavitt of Optum/QSSI said the contractors' concerns, which were mostly related to testing, were shared with CMS officials. He said they understood the issues and were working on them.
"We did fully talk about the risks that we saw, and we passed them along," he said.
The House committee hearing comes as complaints about the website grow louder in Congress, with Republicans and Democrats seeking to extend the open enrollment period that began Oct. 1 and get clarification about when penalties will be levied on people who don't obtain insurance as required by law.
At times, the committee's majority Republicans framed the hearing as a discussion of blame while Obama's Democratic allies tried to steer the discussion into what needs to be done to fix HealthCare.gov. The hearing also occasionally veered into a discussion beyond technology, such as federal law dealing with the privacy of medical information.
"Did they not know? Or did they not disclose?" Upton said, suggesting the Obama administration is "allergic to transparency."
"This is not about blame," he said. "It's about accountability."
The White House said Wednesday night that it will soon issue policy guidance making clear that people who sign up for insurance by March 31, 2014, will not face a penalty. Still, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., said he would seek a delay in the individual mandate -- a non-starter for the White House -- and a waiver for those who are unable to sign up through the online exchanges.
Obama has made fixing the health care website a top priority, as he and the administration seek to emphasize that the 2010 law is more than a piece of technology. The president has launched what he is calling a "tech surge" and tapped Jeffrey Zients, a former deputy White House budget director, to spearhead the effort to fix the troubled website.
The administration also created a series of "alpha teams" with insurance companies, after Sebelius met with industry executives and White House officials Wednesday. Sebelius said the teams will "iron out kinks in both the (enrollment) forms and in direct enrollment."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the Affordable Care Act is "an enormous success, with one obvious problem," which is the technology.
"If we want this law to work, we've got to make it right, we've got to fix it, not what the Republicans are trying to do: nix it and repeal it," said Waxman.
Campbell, of CGI Federal, said another contractor was responsible for the technology that allowed users to create new accounts and which caused the initial bottleneck issues on the site. She called the tech glitches a "front-door problem," stressing that the online exchange has steadily improved over the past two weeks.
Responding to questions about whether the website was tested, Campbell said it was done throughout the process of building HealthCare.gov. She said CGI's portion of the site worked when it was tested, but when it was integrated into the entire system, it did not work, she said.
She and Slavitt said the contractors would have preferred more time to test the technology. "Months would be nice," he said.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the website's problems are "exactly how outsiders predicted this would turn out."
"I don't want this to be a failure," he said. "I want you all to get it fixed. But I'm very disturbed that CMS did not give you significant time to test the system."
Officials from Equifax Workforce Solutions and Serco also testified alongside Campbell and Slavitt. The GOP-led committee had wanted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to appear, but she cited a scheduling conflict and will appear next week.
While Democrats such as Waxman stressed the benefits of the health care law, the concern about the long-term impact of the website's problems is apparent.
Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, the most vulnerable Senate Democrat on the ballot in 2014, joined Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in calling on the White House to extend open enrollment beyond March 31 and to provide guidance on penalties for the uninsured.
"I believe, given the technical issues, it makes sense to extend the time for people to sign up," Pryor said in a statement Wednesday. "In addition, the administration should state clearly how the enforcement mechanism will work if people can't sign up in time."