CMS calls fixes 'attainable,' though some parts aren't built yet

The CMS' deputy chief information officer testified Tuesday that fixing so it will work for the vast majority of users by Nov. 30 is an “attainable goal,” but stopped short of offering anxious lawmakers a full-fledged guarantee.

“I think there are still a lot of moving parts and it wouldn't be prudent to give a 100% guarantee,” Henry Chao told Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which hosted the hearing.

Chao also testified, however, that the CMS team is still building some of the website's back-end systems, which don't affect what consumers see when they shop for plans but are necessary to carry out the financial and payment processes involving insurers.

While the essential pieces for consumers—such as applications and plan selections—were in place by Oct. 1, other back-end pieces are not needed until 2014, CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said in a call later with reporters. That includes the financial portion that deals with payments to insurers, which Bataille said is not needed until the middle of January.

Bataille also said the CMS has now completed two-thirds of the “high-priority bugs” that the administration's tech team has identified that pertain directly to the so-called 834 notices that are necessary to transmit enrollment information to insurers.

“We are on a path,” Bataille said, “for a vast majority of users to smoothly experience by the end of the month.”

Republicans, though, continued to hammer the administration for failing to anticipate the glitches that have plagued the website.

GOP members on the House panel appeared surprised that Chao had not received a copy of a presentation by McKinsey & Co. (PDF) that describes “pressure testing” the federal marketplaces.

The 15-page presentation, which the committee obtained during its investigation of the rollout, identified problems such as “no inter-agency consensus on verification standards,” “lack of transparency and alignment on critical issues,” and a significant dependence on outside contractors.

According to a list that McKinsey provided to the committee, briefings were given in March and April to CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner; HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Gary Cohen, CMS deputy administrator and director of CMS' Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight; and Todd Park, the U.S. chief technology officer. Chao testified that he was interviewed by McKinsey but did not receive a copy of the findings.

Chao testified that he was interviewed by McKinsey but did not receive a copy of the findings. After the hearing, Republicans on the committee said in a news release that Chao's lack of awareness about the consultant's red flags underscores McKinsey's conclusion that the federal marketplaces had “no single empowered decision-making authority.”

Chao, who also serves as deputy director of CMS' Office of Information Services, was the sole witness on the first of two panels of witnesses brought in to testify on security issues related to, the troubled federal Web portal where consumers can shop for private health insurance plans.

On the topic of security, Chao was more emphatic about this aspect of the website's performance. Answering a question from Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Chao offered an immediate and unequivocal “yes” affirming that is capable of protecting consumers' information.

Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter: @MHjzigmond



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