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5 key questions await developers of healthcare.gov

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Executives of companies that built key parts of the federal government’s troubled health-insurance website will have some explaining to do when they appear before a congressional committee Thursday, just weeks after the companies assured the lawmakers that the healthcare.gov website was on course for a smooth launch.

Since executives from the companies last appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Sept. 10, the website that is a critical to implementing President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act has gotten off to a rocky start, with technical glitches preventing many consumers from even creating accounts, much less signing up for health insurance.

The problems with the online exchange -- intended to allow Americans to comparison shop for coverage and then sign up for their preferred policy -- have fired up critics of the “Obamacare” law, giving them new hope that they can delay it or even repeal it. The early snafu also has prompted a full-court press by the administration to get it up and running, thereby containing the political damage and keeping implementation of the law on schedule.

It’s against this tumultuous backdrop that officials of two of the main contractors hired to build the website – CGI Federal, the lead firm on healthcare.gov with $300 million in contracts, and software maker QSSI – will testify on Thursday.

The executives can expect a rough reception, both from opponents of the law, who may try to get them to blame the website's woes on the complex law, and its defenders, who will likely try to deflect the blame onto the private firms.

Here are five key questions the execs are likely to be grilled on, and some of the key issues they will have to explain:

What is causing the website’s problems?

Fingers are pointing in different directions. Obama administration officials have blamed an unexpected surge of interest after the Oct. 1 launch for the problems. As recently as Tuesday night, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said of the number of visitors: “I think volume was extremely high.”

That line is expected to be echoed Thursday by the executives.

"After the launch, healthcare.gov was inundated by many more consumers than anticipated," Vice President Andrew Slavitt of QSSI, which developed software for user-account creation and the critical data hub that the site uses to communicate with federal databases, wrote in testimony prepared for the hearing. "Many of the critical components developed by these multiple vendors were overwhelmed."

Slavitt also said a requirement that users register before browsing was added far along in the development process, and that feature contributed to the website’s responsiveness.

But many outside software and website developers say that problems in coding and the way the website communicates with federal and state databases are bigger issues. That’s partly due to the speed at which healthcare.gov was built and launched, they say, noting that federal contracts for the site were awarded in 2011, but the specifications weren’t completed until March.

“It’s a difficult thing to launch something on scale of an Amazon, from zero to something like 30 million users,” Chet Wisniewski, senior security adviser for IT security firm Sophos, told NBC News. “Amazon spent years building the infrastructure and the knowledge and a team that understands how to knit it all together on this huge database.”

Zach Sims, co-founder of Codeacademy, which offers free online coding classes in programming languages, said that too many hands also may have been involved. He noted that big e-commerce sites “have in-house technology teams that are able to work together seamlessly, whereas healthcare.gov was contracted out to several separate firms, each responsible for a different component of the architecture. This lack of collaboration likely made it difficult for each piece to function correctly as a whole.”

Still some of the problems seem rudimentary. Sam Reed, a javascript developer, pointed to one section of code that set the maximum number of state codes at 50 – failing to recognize that the list includes the District of Columbia, meaning Wyoming gets left out.

A segment of code from the healthcare.gov website shows a command to define a two-letter code for each state plus the District of Columbia, then a note from the programmer about a potential problem with using "50" as a maximum value for the number of those two-letter codes. NBC News

Can the site be fixed?

Obama administration officials have expressed confidence that the existing site can be fixed, and both CGI Federal Vice President Cheryl Campbell and Slavitt state that their companies are committed to making it work. “Our top priority is to improve the consumer experience,” Campbell said in her written testimony.

Some experts agree the site is fixable.

“Can we ever have a website that delivers on what it was expected to do?” said John Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace Hosting. “Yes. You’re not breaking the laws of physics.”

But others have their doubts.

John McAfee, controversial founder of the Internet security company McAfee Inc. and a staunch critic of the site, said the whole thing should be scrapped.

“If indeed you are going to do the right thing and start over, how are you going to convince us that it will be done right?” asked McAfee, who has said he was approached by House Republicans for guidance on the site’s troubled launch.

Can it be fixed in time for key deadlines?

That is a key question, Engates said, especially considering the complex technical issues, such as the requirement for the site to communicate seamlessly with multiple databases.

The White House reaffirmed a key deadline Wednesday, saying people have until March 31 to sign up even if the coverage doesn’t kick in till later. The clarification is unrelated to the troubled rollout of the online exchanges, according to administration officials.

But lawmakers – including some Democrats – have called for delays in the mandate because of the website’s woes.

Delays of any sort might disrupt health insurance markets by making the participant pool smaller and disproportionately sicker, as Business Insider reported. That could cause insurers to raise rates for 2015.

But insurers say that there’s still time to fix the site. "This is a marathon and not a sprint," Karen Ignagni, head of the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans, said in a statement a few days after the rollout.

Engates said members of the House committee should ask how long it would take to get the system working correctly and the reasons for confidence in that estimate. 

Who’s going to fix it?

Obama has called for a “tech surge” of repairs to the site and Tuesday said he had tapped a former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeff Zients, to oversee the cleanup. But the administration has not named who might be on that surge team – another question that Engates said should be answered immediately.

Private efforts to help are also under way. One early element of the site that excited outside developers was that the source code for the site was opened for anyone to look at, through the code repository site GitHub.

Dave Cole, a developer for Development Seed, the small District of Columbia company that built the front end of healthcare.gov, wrote in a blog post last March that opening up the code for the website could help the individual online health exchanges being built by states. “They can easily check out and build upon the work being done at the federal level,” he said.

But after the problems began with the Oct. 1 rollout, the government shut down the repository without explanation. Reed, the javascript developer, then launched his own repository of the site’s code on GitHub to solicit fixes. While critical of some of the coding problems he found, Reed does offer some sympathy to developers on government projects like those at CGI Federal. “The environment doesn’t reward performance, the bureaucracy is maddening and all of us could get better-paying jobs elsewhere,” he said.

Others are also jumping in to diagnose and try to fix problems.

And finally, who is to blame?

In the end, said software and Web-development experts, alarms should have been raised if testing showed that there were problems. And that rests on the companies, not the administration, Engates said.

“That’s their job to tell the guy paying the bill what’s likely to happen,” he said. “They’re the closest to the code to see what’s happening.”

Still, the buck may roll up to the Obamacare law anyway, said Wisniewski, the Sophos expert.

“My mom and dad are quite elderly, and if something goes wrong, they’re going to blame Obamacare, because they don’t know the difference,” he said. “And they shouldn’t have to know the difference.”

NBC News’ Helen Popkin and Frank Thorp contributed to this report.

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