Obama health care tech official unaware of early prediction of website problems


McClatchy Washington Bureau

An Obama administration technology expert who worked closely on the development of the federal health insurance exchange told a congressional panel on Tuesday that he was never privy to an independent report in March that warned of potential problems with the project – even though many of his colleagues and White House staffers were.

Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told House Energy and Commerce Committee members that even though he was interviewed for the report by McKinsey & Co., he saw its analysis for the first time Tuesday morning after the committee had provided a copy to The Washington Post.

The report, based on interviews with contractors and administration officials working on the project, highlighted possible security and organizational structure problems in the development of the insurance marketplace and its portal, HealthCare.gov.

In his testimony before the commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Chao also said that upward of 30 percent of the insurance marketplace website hasn’t even been built yet, including systems for providing consumer subsidies to insurers. But Julie Bataille, the communications director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that part of the system won’t be needed until mid-January and work is on track to have it completed by then.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama on Tuesday continued to offer apologies for the administrative and political havoc that the botched rollout of the website has created.

“I think we probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website that needed to work the way it should,” he told the annual meeting of the Wall Street Journal CEO Council.

He also said he underestimated the effect that the polarized political environment would play.

“We should have anticipated that that would create a rockier rollout than if Democrats and Republicans were both invested in success,” Obama said.

McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm, presented its report on problems in the website’s development in separate briefings between March 28 and April 8 to at least 15 administration officials. They included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; and Obama health policy adviser Jeanne Lambrew.

The analysis noted the administration’s scattergun approach in developing the goals and requirements for the marketplace project, as well as the lack of a central leader who could make decisions and set measurable yardsticks for success. The report said contractors were getting conflicting directives from different people within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Committee Republicans expressed concerns about the security of users’ personal information on the troubled HealthCare.gov website. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said the report proves that people serving in the White House – and possibly Obama – knew about problems well in advance of the disastrous Oct. 1 launch of open enrollment on HealthCare.gov.

“Either President Obama didn’t know about it, in which case people directly under him knew that this thing was going to be a disaster and just didn’t tell him,” Scalise said, “or the president did know about it” and should “go and fire every single one of those people right now and hold them accountable.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was briefed on the McKinsey report and was told that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Health and Human Services were implementing its recommendations.

“The review recommended certain pro-active steps to mitigate risks and those recommendations were acted upon,” Carney said at his daily White House press briefing.

He said one of the fixes involved streamlining decision-making to handle certain “critical issues,” a recommendation that Carney said was implemented over the summer. Carney emphasized that Obama was not told of the full gravity of problems that the HealthCare.gov website ultimately experienced.

“As he said to you last week, had he known that, he wouldn’t have been touting the launch of the website as he and I and others were in the run-up to Oct. 1,” Carney said.

Obama told his Wall Street audience Tuesday that what his administration “probably needed to do on the front end was to blow up how we procure for IT, especially on a system this complicated. We did not do that successfully. Now, we are getting it fixed, but it would have been better to do it on the front end, rather than the back end.”

Chao said the White House goal of having the troubled website fully operational for 80 percent of users by Nov. 30 was “attainable” but “I don’t think there’s any guarantees.”

“I think there’s still a lot of moving parts, (so) it wouldn’t be prudent to give 100 percent guarantees about where we want to be at” on that date, he told lawmakers.

Subcommittee ranking member Diana DeGette, D-Colo., reminded Chao that the agency’s credibility was on the line.

“All of us were disappointed that it didn’t work on Oct.1, so we need this to be essentially working ASAP,” she said. “For one thing, people who want insurance coverage as of Jan. 1 have to sign up by Dec. 15, so if it’s not working for the vast majority of people by the end of November, that’s going to be hard to do. Understood?”

In a low, barely audible tone that echoed much of his two-plus hours of testimony, Chao replied, “We certainly understand.”

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Email: tpugh@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter @TonyPughDC

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