WASHINGTON (AP) — Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration’s HealthCare.gov exchange enrollment website were growing increasingly stressed.
Project developers who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity — because they feared they would otherwise be fired — said they complained openly to each other about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines. One was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time, one developer said.
The system behind the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange enrollment site is complex.
The system must verify a host of personal information, including income and immigration system. The system must connect to many different federal computer networks, including networks at the Social Security Administration, IRS, Veterans Administration, Office of Personnel Management and the Peace Corps.
Some developers worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.
Outside software companies usually perform the final integration testing for a big website. Congressional investigators have concluded that a team at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), not private software developers, handled the HealthCare.gov integration testing during the final weeks.
Just weeks before the Oct. 1 launch, one programmer said, colleagues huddled in conference rooms trying to patch “bugs,” or deficiencies in computer code. Unresolved problems led to visitors experiencing cryptic error messages or enduring long waits trying to sign up.
The government spent at least $394 million on federal health care exchange and data hub contracts. Those contracts included major awards to Virginia-based CGI Federal Inc., Maryland-based Quality Software Services Inc. and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.
CGI Federal said in a statement Monday it was working with the government and other contractors “around the clock” to improve the system, which it called “complex, ambitious and unprecedented.”
Schematics from late 2012 show that officials used a “data services hub” — a traffic cop for managing information — in lieu of a design that would have allowed state exchanges to connect directly to government servers when verifying an applicant’s information.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said Sunday that the data hub was working but not meeting public expectations. “We are committed to doing better,” officials said.
The administration has acknowledged that a planned upgrade to the website has been postponed indefinitely and that online Spanish-language signups would remain unavailable, despite a promise to Hispanic groups that the capability would start this week. And the government tweaked the website’s home page so visitors can now view phone numbers to apply the old-fashioned way or window-shop for insurance rates without registering first.
On Monday, the White House advised people frustrated by the online tangle that they can enroll by calling 1-800-318-2596 in a process that should take 25 minutes for an individual or 45 minutes for a family. Assistance is also available in communities from helpers who can be found at LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov.
Administration officials so far have refused to say how many people actually have managed to enroll in insurance during the three weeks since the new marketplaces became available. Without enrollment numbers, it’s impossible to know whether the program is on track to reach projections from the Congressional Budget Office that 7 million people would gain coverage during the first year the exchanges were available.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee was expected to conduct an oversight hearing Thursday, probably without Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifying. She could testify on Capitol Hill on the subject as early as next week.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., plans to introduce legislation to delay that requirement because: “It’s not fair to punish people for not buying something that’s not available,” Rubio told “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
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