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Healthcare.gov failures surface at Hill hearing

By Stephen Ohlemacher

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI listens at left as Andy Slavitt, representing QSSI's parent company, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing with contractors that built the federal government's health care websites.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The leading contractors on the Obama administration's troubled health insurance website told Congress Thursday that the government failed to thoroughly test the complicated system before it went live.

Executives of CGI Federal, which built the federal HealthCare.gov website serving 36 states, and QSSI, which designed the part that helps verify applicants' income and other personal details, testified under oath before the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The contractors said they each tested their own components independently but that the Health and Human Services department was responsible for testing the whole system from end to end. That kind of testing didn't happen until the last couple of weeks before the system's Oct. 1 launch.

It quickly crashed once consumers tried to use it.

Representing QSSI, Andrew Slavitt told the committee that ideally, end-to-end testing should have occurred well before the launch, with enough time to correct flaws.

How much time?

"Months would be nice," said Slavitt.

"We would have loved to have months," concurred CGI vice president Cheryl Campbell.

The administration's determination to go live on Oct. 1 despite qualms about testing quickly became a focus of the hearing, which turned sharply partisan at times.

Republicans, still committed to repealing Obama's health care law, approached the questioning with a prosecutorial tone, leading New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone to call the whole exercise a "monkey court."

The contractors did say the problems can and are being fixed on a daily basis, and they expressed confidence that uninsured Americans would have coverage by Jan. 1, when the law's benefits take effect, though they would not be held to a timetable.

The hearing comes as President Barack Obama's allies are starting to fret about the political fallout. Democrats had hoped to run for re-election next year on the benefits of the health care law for millions of uninsured Americans. Instead, computer problems are keeping many consumers from signing up through new online markets.

One House Democrat says the president needs to "man up" and fire somebody, while others are calling for signup deadlines to be extended and a reconsideration of the penalties individuals will face next year if they remain uninsured.

Rep. Richard Nolan, D-Minn., told The Associated Press the computer fiasco has "damaged the brand" of the health care law.

"The president needs to man up, find out who was responsible, and fire them," Nolan said. He did not name anyone.

The focus on the contractors is a first step for GOP investigators. After the failure of their drive to defund "Obamacare" by shutting down the government, Republicans have suddenly been handed a new line of attack by the administration itself. Administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, are to testify next week.

Slavitt, representing QSSI's parent company, said the operation's virtual back room, known as the federal data hub, is working well despite some bugs.

But his company was also involved with another part of the system, a balky component for registering individual consumer accounts that became an online bottleneck.

Slavitt acknowledged the registration system had problems but said they've largely been cleared away.

And he also laid blame on the administration, 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.

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