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Federal CIO, CTO Defend Progress Fixing Obamacare Website

White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park  said “the site is getting better week by week in performance and functionality. One metric is the system response time."

White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said “the site is getting better week by week in performance and functionality. One metric is the system response time." // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Some top guns in federal information technology who assembled at a House oversight panel Wednesday said they were encouraged by progress the multi-agency 24/7 team is making repairing the troubled website, asserting that 17,000 users per hour can now log in to shop for health insurance.

White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, appearing earlier than he’d preferred after pressure from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said “the site is getting better week by week in performance and functionality. One metric is the system response time,” he added, which “just a few weeks ago was about 8 seconds and is now under one second.”

Park on Oct. 1 moved from the White House Science and Technology Policy Office to work full time on the Obamacare site, but Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the Health and Human Services Department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has primary responsibility for the website. Chao has been in the news lately because he apparently was out of the loop on some key security vulnerabilities associated with the site.

“I know there’s consumer frustration,” Chao said. “Some technical problems surfaced and we underestimated the volume of visitors but immediately adjusted,” he said, denying charges that he approved any movement forward for the site while knowing it wouldn’t be ready.

Pressed by committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on statements that the site could handle 60,000 visits simultaneously on day one -- a figure Issa said was in fact only 1,100 -- Chao said the 1,100 figure was for a smaller unit within the site, and put the site’s current capacity at 20,000 to 25,000 simultaneous users.

In prepared testimony, Chao added, “We expect that over the next few weeks, consumers will see  improvements to the site each week and that the consumer experience using the federally facilitated marketplaces eligibility and enrollment system through will be greatly improved for the vast majority of users by Nov. 30.” 

The upbeat message drew skepticism from Issa, a harsh critic of the Affordable Care Act who earlier gave an interview questioning Park’s honesty. “It’s been more than three years of implementation,” he said, and HHS “created the website under [the agency’s] own rules with no effective oversight in the first two years of the Obama administration.”

Issa said to date HHS has not produced “a single responsive document” in response to committee demands, but that contractors had produced 100,000 pages. He announced that he was withholding from the public a document on the website’s privacy vulnerabilities that would be a roadmap for hackers. CMS technical officials should not have allowed “unqualified” political appointees such as CMS chief Marilyn Tavenner to sign off on the website, he said.

Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., objected to Issa’s assertions about dishonesty in administration statements. “Republicans opposed the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and voted against providing health insurance to millions of Americans,” he said. “Since they failed at these repeal efforts, they blocked requests for full funding to implement the law, forcing federal agencies to divert limited funds from other areas. Republican governors refused to set up state exchanges, forcing the federal government to bear more of the workload,” he said.  

“Now they are attempting to use the congressional oversight process to scare Americans away from the website by once again making unsupported assertions about the risk to their personal medical information,” Cummings added. CMS “and its contractors failed to fully deliver what they were supposed to, and congressional oversight of those failures is absolutely warranted. But nobody in this room -- nobody in this country -- believes that Republicans want to fix the website.” 

U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said he’d been working “as a convener and facilitator of cross-agency work” on the Obamacare website, noting that the site’s data hub linking the site to the Internal Revenue Service, Homeland Security Department and Social Security Administration is working well. “Microsoft is still patching Windows XP 12 years after I launched it,” said the former Microsoft executive. “It’s the nature of this business that it’s a complex task, but that’s not an excuse.”

Some tough criticisms of the Affordable Care Act came from David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, who said that the surge of visitors that crippled are dealt with routinely by the Internal Revenue Service. “You have to plan for it, and there are questions whether the effort was adequate here,” he said.

Powner put the overall cost of the HHS website rollout at $600 million, including the IRS portion. He said it was “not clear what role” was played by OMB and the HHS CIO in what he called a failure to follow GAO’s documented “best practices” in accountability, transparency, oversight, expertise and program management.

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