U.S. Contractors shift blame for Healthcare.gov problems

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two leading high-tech contractors for Healthcare.gov website sought on Wednesday to shift the blame for the Obamacare portal's problems in testimony to a congressional panel investigating the program's troubled rollout.

CGI Federal, the main contractor for Healthcare.gov, blamed early problems on another contractor's software and also said the federal government was ultimately responsible for the website's performance.

"Unfortunately, the (front door software) created a bottleneck that prevented the vast majority of users from accessing" the federal health insurance marketplaces, CGI senior vice president Cheryl Campbell said in testimony submitted to the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

The other contractor in question, UnitedHealth Group unit Quality Software Services Inc (QSSI), acknowledged to the same oversight panel that its front door software, which allows users to create accounts, was initially overwhelmed by an unexpectedly high visitor volume.

But Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president with QSSI's parent, said the software is now "keeping pace with demand" and has had "error rates close to zero" since October 8.

He added that one reason for the high volume that led to early bottlenecks was a "late decision" requiring consumers to register on the site before browsing for insurance products. Slavitt did not say who made the decision.

"This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the registration system that wouldn't have occurred if consumers could 'window shop' anonymously," Slavitt said.

Republicans, long opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare, have launched congressional investigations into the administration's development and launch of the website, including the White House role. Serving 36 states, the website is meant to help the uninsured determine their eligibility for tax credits toward buying private coverage under the program.

Since its October 1 launch, users have had difficulty advancing through the enrollment process. The White House is trying to limit political damage, while Republicans seek to delay part of the program, Obama's signature domestic policy.

The testimony submitted on Wednesday was prepared for a Thursday morning hearing at which committee members will be able to question top contractors hired to develop the website. The committee is one of at least three congressional panels delving into the website's problems.

Campbell said in her testimony that the Obama administration's federal marketplace passed eight technical reviews before going live.

But she added that as Healthcare.gov's front end problems dissipate and more users access the site, an "increased number of transactions ... have caused system performance issues such as slow response times or data assurance issues."

She also said that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had overall responsibility for administering the program.

"CMS serves the important role of systems integrator or 'quarterback' on this project and is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance," Campbell said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has been a focus of website critics, said in a blog posting Wednesday that she was committed to improving it.

But, in an "infographic" posted online by the department, HHS also said that "the system wasn't tested enough, especially for high volumes" before it went live.

HHS also said it had launched new tools to allow consumers to preview plan information before applying for coverage - a response to complaints from consumers who wanted to be able to compare insurance plans without creating an account.

The contractor hired to process paper applications, Serco Inc, said it had received almost 16,000 documents, about half of which were consumer applications.

"We have succeeded in key entering more than half of those applications," John Lau, Serco's program director, said in testimony to the Energy and Commerce Committee.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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