Documents Show ‘Chaos’ in the Days Before HealthCare.gov’s Launch
On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a new batch of documents showing the "chaos ... behind-the-scenes" at CMS in the days leading up to the launch of the federal health insurance exchange website on Oct. 1, the Washington Post reports (Somashekhar, Washington Post, 11/21).
According to the New York Times, the package of emails between agency officials and federal contractors indicate that both sides were trying to resolve a series of glitches and test failures with HealthCare.gov. The officials and contractors also acknowledged that they were facing a public relations disaster if they did not fix the issues, the Times reports.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in a in a statement said the emails show that the Obama administration "went out of its way to hide the chaos behind the scenes" (Lipton, New York Times, 11/21). He added, "The frenzied lead-up to Oct. 1, coupled with the inadequate testing and numerous systems failures, reveal an administration that was not up to the job despite over three years to prepare" (Washington Post, 11/21).
Details of Documents
One email -- from CMS Deputy Chief Information Officer Henry Chao -- that was sent to dozens of CMS personnel on Sept. 26 stated in all capital letters, "I do not want a repeat of what happened near the end of December 2005, where Medicare.gov had a meltdown." Chao added, "This is to get your attention, if I didn't have it already" (New York Times, 11/21).
Chao insisted that the portal needed to handle at least 10,000 visitors at the same time on the day of its launch. However, another memo dated Sept. 27 showed that David Nelson -- acting director of the CMS Office of Enterprise Management -- had disclosed that HealthCare.gov was unable to process more than 500 simultaneous applicants. Nelson wrote, "We must give ourselves the ability work through these tuning issues."
In an email to Chao sent on Sept. 30, Akhtar Zaman -- a system integrator at CMS -- wrote that HealthCare.gov could only handle 1,100 to 1,200 concurrent users. Zaman noted that a function of the site to allow consumers to compare health plans had not yet been tested (Rampton, Reuters, 11/21).
In his Sept. 27 memo, Nelson also highlighted additional problems that the portal had been experiencing, including "defective code" and "inefficient queries" (Washington Post, 11/21). However, Hemant Sharma -- a contractor with CGI Federal, one of the companies hired to build HealthCare.gov -- in a response to Nelson wrote that the problems were "very typical in any performance test and part of the tuning exercise." Sharma added that additional servers would help boost performance of the site.
In a separate email exchange with Chao on Sept. 29, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park asked whether adequate testing had been done on the website to address bottlenecks in its system and if Chao had confidence in the results, Reuters reports. The package of documents from the House committee did not include a response from Chao (Reuters, 11/21).
White House Responds
White House spokesperson Eric Schulz said that "these cherry-picked documents may be leaked by Republicans, but they don't reveal anything new" (New York Times, 11/21). He added, "To the extent that CMS had identified capacity issues, we of course sought assurances that they were getting addressed," noting that "nobody anticipated the severity of the problems we experienced once the site launched" (Reuters, 11/21).
Schulz criticized the release of the documents as a "partisan political strategy," adding, "While experts are working night and day to get HealthCare.gov fully functioning, House Republicans continue their obsession with sabotaging Obamacare." He noted that Republicans have "tried to block [the law], repeal it, overturn it, defund it, shut down the government over it and now they are investigating it." The strategy "hasn't worked in the past, and it's not going to work now," Schulz said (Washington Post, 11/21).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.