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Health care contractors: don't blame us, we just built it

Contractors paid to build the health care website tell Congress the flubbed rollout is not their fault.
House Holds Hearing On Affordable Care Act Implementation Failures
Senior vice president of CGI Federal Cheryl Campbell (2nd R) waits for the beginning of a hearing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act before the House Energy and Commerce Committee October 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Contractors who built the glitch-filled website have a clear message for Congress Thursday: don’t blame us.

Officials from CGI Federal, Optum/QSSI, Equifax Workforce Solutions and Serco appeared at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday morning to explain what went wrong, but they weren't eager to take any responsibility.

Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president of CGI, which built the site, said her company isn’t the one to blame.

The Department of Health and Human Services “serves the important role of systems integrator or quarterback on this project and is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance,” she said Thursday.

She also pointed to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services –the government agency tasked with running the healthcare exchanges, for pushing the site to go live. “It was not our decision,” said Campbell.

The hearing is the first public inquiry into the flubbed website that took years to build and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Republicans have blamed Health and Human Services head Kathleen Sebelius for the failure -- and the contractors Thursday were eager to agree it wasn’t their fault.

Andy Slavitt, of QSSI—which designed a part of the website that looks into applicant’s personal details like income—partially blamed the administration, arguing a late decision mandating potential customers to make accounts before looking at specific health plans may have contributed to the overload.

“This may have driven higher simultaneous usage of the registration system that wouldn’t have occurred if consumers could window-shop anonymously,” he said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has come under fire for the glitches and is expected to testify in front of Congress as early as next week, told CNN on Tuesday that Obama was unaware of the technical problems until the website launched. A group of 32 Republican congressmen have gone as far as to sign a letter to the president calling for Sebelius’ resignation, citing the problems with the website.

During Thursday afternoon’s White House briefing, spokesman Jay Carney said the administration knew there was always the possibility of some glitches but “what we did not know was that we would encounter problems on the scale that we’ve seen.” 

Republicans took the opportunity to ding the White House.

Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the committee’s chairman, said

he was repeatedly assured by contractors and  Obama administration officials that “everything’s on track. Except it wasn’t, as we all know too well.” 

He later added that Americans expected a user-friendly program, similar to ones that allow them to order pizza or airline tickets online. The program “is not ready for primetime,” he declared. 

The hearing also delved into a long-time GOP claim that the website could violate user privacy. Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas claimed Americans’ privacy could be threatened with the new site, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).”

Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey then criticized Barton, saying “HIPAA only applies when there’s health information being provided. That’s not in play here today,” adding Barton was trying to “scare everybody.”

 “Will the gentleman yield? Barton interjected. “No, I will not yield to this monkey court or whatever this thing is,” Pallone shot back.

Since the rollout of the website on Oct 1, Americans have run into several glitches, including delays, receiving error messages, and getting the Spanish-language version of the site. Obama admitted during a Rose Garden speech on Monday that the website for his signature Affordable Care Act has “been too slow” and that “people have been getting stuck.” The president promised to fix the issues, pointed out Americans could sign up the old-fashioned way, via phone or in person, and insisted the problem was a technical one, and not with the law itself.

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California cited reports saying it could take six months to a year to fix the site, and another insisting five million lines of computer code needed to be re-written. Campbell insisted, however, there was no need to be alarmed, improvements were taking place every day and she was confident Americans would still be able to enroll by Dec. 15. 

Democratic  Rep. Anna Eshoo of California took issue with the argument from contractors and the Obama Administration  that the glitches were in part due to too much traffic.

“Amazon and EBay don’t’ crash the week before Christmas,” she said. “ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day,” she said.

A few Dems, including New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut are adding their name to the growing list of Republicans asking President Obama to extend open enrollment for the new online insurance market (and delay the healthcare law’s individual mandate) , citing technical problems associated with