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10/24/2013
02:14 PM
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Tech Contractors Reject Blame For HealthCare.gov Mess

Contractors point fingers at each other and the government as they attempt to shift responsibility for healthcare website problems.

In a quest for answers about Healthcare.gov's massive failure this month, politicians queried the contractors responsible for the mess at a Thursday House hearing as the contractors did their best to stay out of the hot seat.

"[The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] serves the important role of systems integrator, or 'quarterback,' on this project and is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance of the overall Federal Exchange," said Cheryl Campbell, SVP at CGI Federal Inc., a contractor that developed a portion of the exchange. CGI Federal is also responsible for FederalReporting.gov and Medicare.gov.

The contractors at the Energy and Commerce hearing blamed the government and each other for the glitches, mostly skirting their portion of the responsibility in their written testimony.

Healthcare.gov launched Oct. 1, and was largely unsuccessful in registering the 3.7 million Americans who attempted to gain access to the site in its first week live.

[ There's plenty of blame to go around, starting with our elected officials. Read Dysfunctional Congress Hurts Government IT. ]

The contractor responsible for the registration process, Quality Software Services, Inc. (QSSI), swerved away from a statement of responsibility concerning the process's widespread failure. QSSI developed the enterprise identity management (EIDM) function, which allowed users to secure accounts and gain access to the marketplace.

Campbell was quick to point out QSSI's shortcomings. "The EIDM serves as the 'front door' to the Federal Exchange that a user must pass through before entering the [Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM)]. Unfortunately, the EIDM created a bottleneck that prevented the vast majority of users from accessing the FFM," she said.

QSSI's rebuttal? There are lots of moving pieces.

"While the EIDM plays an important role in the registration system, tools developed by other vendors handle critical functions such as the user interface, the e-mail that is sent to the user to confirm registration, the link that the user clicks on to activate the account, and the Web page the user lands on," said Andrew Slavitt, EVP at Optum, which owns QSSI. "All these tools must work together seamlessly to ensure smooth registration."

All contractors testifying cited the unanticipated volume of consumers as a significant reason for the site's glitches.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) took a stern tone as he evaluated the development process and the many "broken promises."

Upton stressed the hearing wasn't to find blame, but to encourage accountability and transparency -- although the contractors seemed to be more interested in dodging bullets than stepping up and taking responsibility.

"Over the months leading up to the Oct. 1 launch, top administration officials and lead contractors appeared before this committee, looked us in the eye, and assured us repeatedly that everything was 'on track,'" Upton said. "Except that it wasn't, as we now know all too well. So why did they assure us the website would work? Did they not know? Or did they not disclose? That’s what we are looking to find out, with the contractors today, and with Secretary Sebelius next week."

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Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
10/28/2013 | 5:30:56 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
True. My point was that once you toss the phrase "Enterprise" in to something, it just sounds like it wants to be a disaster. ;-)
ChrisP440
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ChrisP440,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/28/2013 | 3:48:23 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
IDM is a standard IT acronym for a system in charge of handling use logon information. Sounds complicated and it is, but it's a core technological function of any website that handles large amount of user with accounts that retain information and the corresponding logon/pw. It wouldn't have failed if it was sized properly.
ChrisP440
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ChrisP440,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/28/2013 | 3:44:43 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
The problem was the technical requirements changed drastically late in the game. The EIDM piece that melted down was never sized to correctly handle the amount of load that the design change created. One thing that didn't come out was when this exactly occurred, who was informed, and how long the contractors had to react. QSSI was responsible for this piece. If the change happened with their knowledge at any point before the go live, they should have raised a red flag at the very least about the potential load issue.... instead they simply said more testing was needed which is a CYA consultant statement if there ever was one. I think clearly QSSI dropped the ball here because the team working on the EIDM should have at least had an idea the system wouldn't scale and they should have had some of their own load testing done as part of validating the deployment. They were hired for their experience on the matter which I think was not applied here(probably because they staffed the project with inexperienced IDM people). Obviously congress didn't want to pin blame on the consultants, they wanted to pin it on HHS and the White House. So much so that they gave the ball back to QSSI and even expanded their role now to "fix the entire system"! They are being rewarded for failure by being given additional power and oversight. Seeing such a dubious decision like this and you have to ask yourself who United Health has pulling strings behind the scenes.
ChrisP440
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ChrisP440,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/28/2013 | 3:43:11 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
Government in-house(CMS) was responsible for testing which they failed miserably at. The problem was the technical requirements changed drastically late in the game. The EIDM piece that melted down was never sized to correctly handle the amount of load that the design change created. One thing that didn't come out was when this exactly occurred, who was informed, and how long the contractors had to react. QSSI was responsible for this piece. If the change happened with their knowledge at any point before the go live, they should have raised a red flag at the very least about the potential load issue.... instead they simply said more testing was needed which is a CYA consultant statement if there ever was one. I think clearly QSSI dropped the ball here because the team working on the EIDM should have at least had an idea the system wouldn't scale and they should have had some of their own load testing done as part of validating the deployment. They were hired for their experience on the matter which I think was not applied here(probably because they staffed the project with inexperienced IDM people). Obviously congress didn't want to pin blame on the consultants, they wanted to pin it on HHS and the White House. So much so that they gave the ball back to QSSI and even expanded their role now to "fix the entire system"! They are being rewarded for failure by being given additional power and oversight. Seeing such a dubious decision like this and you have to ask yourself who United Health has pulling strings behind the scenes.
BGREENE292
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BGREENE292,
User Rank: Strategist
10/26/2013 | 9:44:50 AM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
The entire project was not government in-house, but OUT-sourced (as so many GOP fans reflexively suggest) in order to use their purported expertise. Apparently, there was little of that to go around.

But even HHS agency oversight means a gargantuan task, and most private firms can hide shoddy work or even sabotage-to-suit. More than six major firms were behind this multi-year effort, and that by itself is sometimes prescription for disaster.

In any case, let the evidence come in for what actually happened, and hope Zients can accomplish what he expects to do.

On the positive side, the healthcare.gov website already has established Obamacare is hugely popular, and early reports suggest a saving of $190 billion over the next decade, and a deficit reduction of almost $300 billion. (See-- http://www.americanprogress.or...
Tom Murphy
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Tom Murphy,
User Rank: Author
10/25/2013 | 8:38:54 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
It looks like the government has taken my suggestion A: Hiring someone else to fix what's broken. The White House has announced it's choice:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10...
Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
10/25/2013 | 5:11:24 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
"enterprise identity management (EIDM) function"
This sounds like the title of an article you would find at the TheDailyWTF.com. This was destined to fail.
BubbaIT
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BubbaIT,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/25/2013 | 4:56:58 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
"Trust me. I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Can anyone say this with a straight face? In the days before the heavy computerization we have now, the government - multiple governments, in fact - were able to mount huge operations like the Normandy landings, for instance. Big operations were daunting, but they were done successfully. Why is it that with the complete proliferation of computers and networks now, we have this kind of total failure? Have we just reached a point where our systems are so complex that they're a bigger hindrance to a project's success than a help?

The failure of healthcare.gov is leaving a bad taste in many people's mouths. And deservedly so.
Tom Murphy
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Tom Murphy,
User Rank: Author
10/25/2013 | 4:32:31 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
If I hired a contractor to build a house, I might be ultimately "reponsible," but if the contractor and related subcontractors failed to perform as expected, I would a) fire them and find others to do the work; b) halt payments to the incompetent crew; and c) sue the crap out of them for wasting my time and money.

No amount of finger-pointing is going to get the system back on track. Congress should be more focused on providing a working service. How? A) Consider hiring someone else to fix what's broken; B) Cosider buying/leasing technology from insurance companies that have demonstrated proficiency in this area; C) Sue the crap out of the prime contractor for failure to perform.

Unfortunately for the ACA, the collapse of the online registration system means that portion of the program is shut down for the time being. On the plus side, Americans can continue to register by calling a toll-free number to speak to a live operator -- and that may be easier for most of them anyway.
MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
10/25/2013 | 2:27:21 PM
re: Tech Contractors Reject Blame For Healthcare.gov Mess
Agreed. Google processes 5 billion searches daily (2012) and I'm certain Bing and others are not really that far behind (likely over the Healthcare.gov daily number). That's not to say the ACA would use the same proprietary algorithms but general website modules/architecture should be a known commodity to a company that creates them for a living.
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