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"They did this to themselves": former government tech expert dishes on woes

Obama Administration technology officials swear in before they testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing
Obama Administration technology officials swear in before they testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.LARRY DOWNING / Reuters

Bad management is responsible for the failure of the website, a former government tech official said Wednesday at a hearing of the Republican-controlled House Oversight Committee. 

And the site's not expected to be perfect by the end of November, the top Obama administration technology officer said.

The Obama administration was expected to release long-awaited figures later on Wednesday showing just how many people managed to sign up in October.

"I believe that CMS (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) will have an announcement later today," White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing.

"The functionality and shortcomings of are the result of bad management decisions made by policy officials within the Administration; they did this to themselves," said Karen Evans, former administrator for information technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

"And if they are now surprised, it is because their own policy officials failed to inform them of the decisions they had made and the consequences associated with those decisions," Evans said in written testimony prepared for the committee. Evans is now a consultant for KE&T Partners, LLC.

"I am going to give it a grade. This was an F," committee chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, told the federal technology officers called in for the hearing. "Every one of you should have been close enough to know something was wrong."

The administration has agreed over and over that the site is unacceptably flawed. Asked whether it would be working as promised on November 30, White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park said not to expect a flawless performance. "The goal that has been laid out is not for the site to be perfect by Nov. 30," Park told the committee. It should, however, work smoothly for the "vast majority" of users.

"That's the goal and we are working very hard to get there," Park said. He said the site can now handle 20,000 to 25,000 users at any one time.

The committee grilled top government technology officers but also posted testimony critical of the government.

Richard Spires, former chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security, called the troubled rollout an embarrassment. "The troubled launch of pains me – as someone who has great passion for wanting to make government IT more effective, this public spectacle once again casts federal IT in a very negative light," said Spires, who left the federal government in July and who is now a private consultant.

"As a federal IT community we appear unempowered, and worse, incompetent," Spires said in testimony prepared for the hearing.

After a tussle with the White House over whether he had time to come, the committee subpoenaed Park. "I recognize that Mr. Park is busy trying to get this site operational. But it is time for Congress to look over shoulder of admin to ask what went wrong," Issa said at the hearing.

But Steve VanRoekel, a former Microsoft executive who is chief information officer at the Office of Management and Budget, noted that even private companies struggle to get technology right. 

"Microsoft is still patching Windows XP, 12 years after I helped launch it in 2001 – continuous improvement is the nature of these efforts," VanRoekel said. 

"As you can imagine, connecting multiple, legacy IT systems across multiple agencies of the Federal Government is a complex task, however, this in no way excuses the problems encountered in launching We are taking this unacceptable situation seriously and working hard to correct course."

Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at CMS, which runs the site; Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary Frank Baitman; and David Powner of the Government Accountability Office, were all testifying.

The Obama administration also pushed back on Wednesday against a report in the Washington Post quoting an unnamed official as saying the website is unlikely to be working smoothly for “the vast majority of users” by the end of November, as promised by the Health and Human Services Department.

“The insurance exchange is balking when more than 20,000 to 30,000 people attempt to use it at the same time - about half its intended capacity, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information,” the Post reported.

"The challenges we are addressing today are a snapshot of November 12, not November 30,” HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a statement. “We are making progress, including fixes to reduce error rates and get the site moving faster."

People who don't have health insurance have until March 31 to enroll.

HHS has started sending out emails to invite 275,000 people who failed to enroll at the new health insurance website to try again. 

The website is now working well enough so that people who started to create accounts and then gave up should be able to finish, says CMS spokesperson Julie Bataille.

“While working to improve our system, we have been conducting an analysis to identify people who tried and failed to create accounts,” Bataille told reporters in a telephone briefing Tuesday. “We have been messaging them to let them know they can now try again.”, the centerpiece of health reform efforts under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, fell apart as soon as it went live on Oct. 1. It was supposed to be a seamless, online system to allow people to comparison shop for health insurance policies, contrasting prices, and checking right away to see if they qualified for a generous federal government subsidy to buy a plan.

It has to take in details of a person’s income and employment, connect with state insurance regulators and various insurance companies, as well as the Internal Revenue Service to check income, the Department of Homeland Security to check for legal residency, and various other government departments.

Several different approved government contractors put together parts of the system and when it went online, the parts didn’t work together. The result: Hardly anyone managed to sign up, critics said “I told you so” and Congress launched several investigations.

President Barack Obama has promised to fix it and appointed his new chief economic adviser, a management expert named Jeff Zients, to lead the repair effort.