With government contractors deflecting blame for problems with the federal health insurance website, Congress and the American public deserve better answers, more accountability and a clearer path forward. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has an opportunity to clear the air and save her job when she appears before a congressional committee Wednesday. The success of health care reform is riding on getting the website to work properly before the difficulties force further delays and discourage the customers needed to make the system work as intended.
The Obama administration now promises an aggressive schedule for repairs to healthcare.gov, to be completed by the end of November. The causes of the complications fall into three categories: Separate parts of the site were constructed by dozens of private contractors without coordination and technically knowledgeable oversight; proper testing was not conducted in timely manner; and there was a reluctance to provide an accurate assessment of the site's deficiencies, which meant the first two problems weren't addressed before the site went public.
These issues are ultimately the fault of the Obama administration. But the finger-pointing should be tempered by the complexity of the task. Millions of people in 36 states, including Florida, are accessing the site to shop for health coverage. Unlike buying a television on Amazon.com, where everyone sees the same products and prices, the health insurance options and pricing depend on individual factors such as location, age and income. To operate properly, the site has to communicate with more than 170 insurers and a vast network of databases, including other federal agency computers that cross-check income and other information provided by insurance shoppers.
Private contractors involved in the site testified last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the lack of coordination by the Obama administration compromised the launch. CGI Federal, the main contractor, said the parts may have been tested separately but the overall, integrated system was not fully tested until two weeks before it went live — a highly compressed time frame when the industry standard is months of preliminary testing.
It isn't clear if Sebelius knew of these problems when government officials were giving high-level briefings about the ease with which the uninsured would navigate the site. But among contractors there was an awareness that the site would not perform as promised — even though some of them had earlier assured Congress otherwise. Congressional Republicans contributed to the site's failure by blocking some of the money the administration needed to build the marketplaces that states were initially expected to create for themselves.
Sebelius should be prepared to fill the holes that remain in the story. It is important to know if she or others soft-pedaled the website's troubles when they knew it would not work properly. But the debacle is also an opportunity to learn from mistakes and streamline big technology programs in the future. The Affordable Care Act remains the most significant effort in generations to provide health care to millions of Americans. But the insurance marketplace website has to work, and the Obama administration has to accept responsibility for bungling the rollout and for ensuring the fixes are made. Fast.