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Administration had warnings in June about Affordable Care Act website problems

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By Lou Kilzer

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, 11:54 p.m.

The Obama administration rolled out the bug-ridden Affordable Care Act website on Oct. 1 despite warnings as early as three months beforehand that it might not be ready.

The Government Accountability Office reported in June that the $400 million effort by 55 contractors would run out of time to be fully tested. Despite assurances given by officials with prime contractor CGI Federal and the government, fundamental tests critical to the website's success were not scheduled until just before going live, the GAO warned.

The office predicted “a potential for implementation challenges going forward.”

By August, the inspector general for the federal Department of Health and Human Services — the agency in charge of implementing the health care program — sounded alarms, federal records reviewed by the Tribune-Review show.

Key testing to assure the website's success was two months behind, the inspector general warned, and a full assessment of the site's central Hub that interacts with federal and state agencies may not be completed “by the initial opening enrollment period.”

Marilyn Tavenner, the HHS official in charge of the online insurance marketplace, responded that she was “confident the Hub will be operationally secure and it will have an authority to operate prior to Oct. 1, 2013.”

Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal, and Michael Finkel, an executive vice president at Quality Software Solutions Inc., responsible for the Hub system, told a House subcommittee on Sept. 10 that they met key milestones and were “confident” the website would be ready.

Contractors and government officials kept marching toward the deadline, relentlessly, confidently and — many on both sides of the political aisle now say — foolishly.

The Hub turned out to be the key component under scrutiny as government officials and contractors scramble to fix the Web site.

The Hub is designed to coordinate information by agencies as disparate as the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security, the Peace Corps and Homeland Security. It would verify consumers' identity, residence, income and more, then determine health insurance plans for which they would be eligible and at what price, based on income and federal subsidies.

Two contractors during congressional testimony last month pointed fingers at others and at the government for inadequate testing. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius countered that some contractors didn't bring their “A-Team” to theproject.

Much of the attention has been on the prime contractor, CGI Federal, which won a $197 million contract to build the site. The government has paid $112 million to CGI as of last week, according to government records and the company.

Sixteen firms were prequalified to bid on the project. Four followed through with bids when details became known, records show.

Some critics say CGI won favor because one of its vice presidents is a college friend of first lady Michelle Obama.

A CGI spokesperson insisted that CGI Vice President Toni Townes-Whitley, whose name went viral on the Web, had “no role in the Affordable Health Act, either in procurement or implementation.”

Townes-Whitley and Michelle Obama graduated from Princeton University in 1985. Records show Townes-Whitley twice visited the White House: for a Christmas Party with 676 others in 2010 and with a group of 302 in December 2011. She met with officials in the Old Executive Office Building six times between December 2010 and June. The purpose of those meetings is unclear. The White House has not responded to Trib queries.

Campaign contributions show company executives favored Republican candidates during the last general election.

The top contributions were $147,700 to the Republican Governors Association and $35,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, according to OpenSecrets.org, a clearinghouse for information on lobbying and political contributions.

Townes-Whitley, one of about 50 vice presidents, donated $1,500 to the Obama campaign, records show. Hers was the largest among a total $2,000 given to the president's re-election by CGI Federal employees. Other individuals at CGI Federal gave Republican Mitt Romney $5,500.

CGI and its subsidiaries, including U.S.-based CGI Federal, employs 72,000 people in 40 countries. Annual revenue exceeds $10 billion.

Hub system creator Quality Software Solutions also is under fire. Through March, it received contracts worth $55 million, according to the GAO.

The business is a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, whose campaign contributions in the last general election leaned almost 2-to-1 Republican, records show. The biggest donations were $1.05 million to the Republican Governors Association and $650,000 to the Democratic Governors Association.

President Obama got $106,536, compared with $95,931 to GOP challenger Romney.

The main responsibility for testing on the website fell to Tavenner, who heads the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. She apologized to Congress, saying “the initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people and is not acceptable.”

Sebelius also apologized: “Hold me responsible for the debacle. I'm responsible.”

Obama has said there is “no excuse for these problems” and pledged they will be fixed. Quality Software, now in control of the project, will work with Google, Oracle and Linux software company Red Hat.

Lou Kilzer is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5628 or lkilzer@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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