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Builders of Obama's $394 million health website saw red flags for months

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22 2013 11:58 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, on the initial rollout of the health care overhaul.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration's showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.

As questions mount over the website's failure, insider interviews and a review of technical specifications by The Associated Press found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers who pushed out a final product that congressional investigators said was tested by the government and not private developers with more expertise.

Project developers who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity — because they feared they would otherwise be fired — said they raised doubts among themselves whether the website could be ready in time. They complained openly to each other about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines. One was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time, one developer said. Website builders saw red flags for months.

A review of internal architectural diagrams obtained by the AP revealed the system's complexity. Insurance applicants have a host of personal information verified, including income and immigration status. The system connects to other federal computer networks, including ones at the Social Security Administration, IRS, Veterans Administration, Office of Personnel Management and the Peace Corps.

President Barack Obama on Monday acknowledged technical problems that he described as "kinks in the system." He also promised a "tech surge" by leading technology talent to repair the painfully slow and often unresponsive website that has frustrated Americans trying to enroll online for insurance plans at the center of Obama's health care law.

But in remarks at a Rose Garden event, Obama offered no explanation for the failure except to note that high traffic to the website caused some of the slowdowns. He said it had been visited nearly 20 million times — fewer monthly visits so far than many commercial websites, such as PayPal, AOL, Wikipedia or Pinterest.

"The problem has been that the website that's supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody," Obama said. "There's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it's fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am."

The online system was envisioned as a simple way for people without health insurance to comparison-shop among competing plans offered in their state, pick their preferred level of coverage and cost and sign up. For many, it's not worked out that way so far.

Just weeks before the launch of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1, one programmer said, colleagues huddled in conference rooms trying to patch "bugs," or deficiencies in computer code. Unresolved problems led to visitors experiencing cryptic error messages or enduring long waits trying to sign up.

Congressional investigators have concluded that the government's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not private software developers, tested the exchange's computer systems during the final weeks. That task, known as integration testing, is usually handled by software companies because it ferrets out problems before the public sees the final product.

The government spent at least $394 million in contracts to build the federal health care exchange and the data hub. Those contracts included major awards to Virginia-based CGI Federal Inc., Maryland-based Quality Software Services Inc. and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.

CGI Federal said in a statement Monday it was working with the government and other contractors "around the clock" to improve the system, which it called "complex, ambitious and unprecedented."

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