WASHINGTON -- Private contractors working on the troubled federal health insurance marketplace told a congressional committee Thursday that they needed several months, but only had two weeks, before the launch date to fully test what could be the most complex government IT system in U.S. history.
The task was further complicated by the Obama administrations late decision to require users to create personal accounts before they could browse and compare health plans on the marketplace portal, the Healthcare.gov website.
User bottlenecks created by the required accounts, along with the abbreviated test period, appear to be the main causes of the marketplace crash that disabled the website shortly after its midnight launch on Oct. 1, the contractors testified. The crash occurred when just 2,000 users across 36 states tried to access the system.
Thursdays hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee gave lawmakers their first opportunity to question several key marketplace architects about the rampant problems that have plagued the system and created a political firestorm for President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Congressional Republicans want the administration to waive the health laws fines for people who dont obtain coverage until the marketplace problems are ironed out. Had it done so previously, said Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., House Republicans wouldnt have moved to shut down the government during the debt ceiling standoff earlier this month.
Democrats remain largely supportive of the Affordable Care Act and often used the phrase fix it, dont nix it, during the hearing to describe their feelings about the problematic Healthcare.gov website. But some have begun to publicly express anger over the marketplace controversy.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has called for extending the six-month open enrollment coverage period, and others, like Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said administration officials should fire someone over the problems.
Both sentiments were on display during the four-hour hearing, which at times veered from confrontational to comical.
Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., expressed the feelings of most Republicans when he described the website as not ready for prime time.
After Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, repeatedly questioned a witness on whether an obscure website disclaimer would violate a federal privacy law regarding personal health information, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., angrily called the hearing a monkey court, noting that the health privacy law wasnt at issue because the website doesnt seek any personal health information from applicants.
A one-stop, online shopping center to purchase health insurance required under the Affordable Care Act, the federal marketplace is not a standard consumer website. Databases for numerous federal agencies, more than 170 insurance companies and information on more than 4,500 health plans in 36 states are integrated into the system. It also determines consumers eligibility for government health plans and federal subsidies that help pay for private insurance.
Government reports indicated that testing for the complex system was months behind schedule, due in part to delays by the administration in drafting guidelines for marketplace operation. But in numerous appearances before the committee, HHS officials and contractors indicated the project was proceeding on schedule with no problems.