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HealthCare.gov Official: Expect Glitches in November

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There will be hiccups, but the federal online marketplace for health insurance plans is in a far better position to handle the open enrollment period that begins Nov. 15, a top official said Thursday.

“We’re in a vastly different situation,” Andy Slavitt, principal deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told lawmakers. “There will certainly be bumps. But we’re expecting to have a good open enrollment.”

CMS, the agency charged with developing the information technology systems behind the federal marketplace and its public-facing website, HealthCare.gov, lacked effective planning and contract oversight, which led to the disastrous launch last year, according to the Government Accountability Office. In its first two months, the site simply failed for the vast majority of visitors, who experienced errors and slow response times.  

GAO made several common-sense management recommendations after closely examining two major task orders and a contract. The task orders were those issued to CGI Federal to develop the marketplace and to QSSI to create the data hub, which verifies and routes user information to other agencies, such as the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. GAO also investigated the contract awarded to Accenture Federal Services, the company that replaced CGI in January 2014.

GAO suggested CMS create better systems of oversight to ensure contracts are performing and formalize oversight duties.

“There really are some common threads that run through all the work that we did here,” William Woods, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“This was an enormously complex undertaking,” he said. “Pressure of deadlines drove a lot of the decisions that were made by CMS.”

Woods also cited changing requirements. “Things were constantly evolving, which made it difficult not only for CMS officials to keep things on track but also for the contractors to keep up with those changes,” he said.

GAO found evidence that some at CMS knew the site wouldn’t be ready by Oct. 1, 2013, even as lawmakers were being assured it would run smoothly by the deadline.

“We saw some indication that there was progressively increasing knowledge that there were problems in meeting that launch,” Woods said, noting he did not know what any particular official knew.

Slavitt, who joined CMS from the private sector only three weeks ago, said the whole operation has improved. “There’s no magic to it,” he said. “It’s basic blocking and tackling. It’s good communication. It’s, quite frankly, a lot of the recommendations that had come out of the GAO report, and making sure that we have precise requirements, with daily management and senior level accountability that goes all the way up to the secretary.”

For starters, Slavitt said, “we have a website that’s already up and live and running. We’re adding improvements, and we’re adding them in a much less risky fashion. We’re doing releases frequently. We’ve built in a big testing window.

“I expect that it won’t be perfect,” he said. “But everybody knows what they need to do.”

GAO said HealthCare.gov, which serves the residents of states that don’t have their own exchange, had cost $840 million as of March. “That number is likely to be higher today,” said Woods, who also added the watchdog was working on additional reports on the site’s security and on IT asset management.

For Republican senators, the GAO report may have raised as many questions as it answered. In a letter dated Thursday, they requested CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner clarify details about 62 different Obamacare-related task orders and contracts identified by GAO.

(Image via txking/Shutterstock.com)

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