President Barack Obama held a news conference to announce a “tech surge” enlisting top IT experts to fix the exchange problems quickly. The White House named Jeffrey Zients, a businessman who is slated to take over as director of the National Economic Council in January, to manage the site overhaul. Obama also gave out a toll-free phone number for people to call for help in signing up for coverage.
Zients announced Friday that the CMS has chosen Optum/QSSI, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, to serve as general contractor in fixing the problems with the federal site. “There is a lot of work to do, but HealthCare.gov is fixable,” he said. “We are confident that by the end of the month of November, HealthCare.gov will run smoothly for the vast majority of users.”
The Obama administration said it would start offering regular blogs and CMS press telebriefings on the status of HealthCare.gov technical fixes. Also last week, 14 insurance industry heavyweights were called to the White House on Wednesday to advise the administration on how to fix the federal exchange. High on the agenda was the lack of coordination on enrollment data standards connecting the exchange and insurers.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the disastrous rollout of the exchange, and Republicans demanded that Obama fire HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Some Democrats joined in the criticism. Sebelius and CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner will face congressional grillings at hearings this week. Administration officials have ducked questions about whether Sebelius knew of major technical problems before the launch.
The administration, worried about consumers not being able to sign up for coverage in time to avoid the healthcare reform law's tax penalty for not obtaining insurance, announced last week that it would extend the deadline for enrollment six weeks to March 31 for avoiding the penalty.
At the House hearing Thursday, Republicans and Democrats questioned representatives of the major contractors that worked on the HealthCare.gov site, but the contractors mostly said it wasn't their fault. Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, the prime contractor, said CGI went through eight technical reviews before the system went live Oct. 1 and delivered the functionality that the CMS required to allow consumers to enroll. But she also acknowledged that website issues have made it difficult for consumers to navigate, and that her company quickly shifted to optimizing performance for users.
Witnesses said changes in the batting order of functions accessible by website users, such as enabling consumers to shop for health plans before fully registering, were made just weeks before its Oct. 1 launch date. Full end-to-end testing of HealthCare.gov also was delayed until a few weeks before its rollout, they said.