In a packed hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday morning, lawmakers grilled four government contractors on the glitches. When asked for an ideal testing period for a project of this scale, one contractor replied, "months would be nice," rather than the two weeks that were allotted.

Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president at Quality Software Services Inc., owned by United Health Group, responded to the question from Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon. Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president at CGI Group Inc., also testifying at the hearing, agreed with Slavitt's answer about timing, but confirmed numerous times throughout the more than three-hour hearing that integrated testing happened "the last two weeks of September."

CGI Group is the main contractor for the health exchanges, and Campbell told lawmakers today that the company did nothing wrong. Instead, she blamed the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for website flaws hobbling online registration. The U.S. government is the “ultimate responsible party,” she said in her testimony. Campbell continued that CMS was the project’s “quarterback,” while QSSI helped design a system that created a “bottleneck” blocking a majority of users from gaining access to the site.

“The increased number of transactions” on the website “have caused system performance issues,” according to Campbell’s testimony. She said at the hearing, "The system will continue to improve. ... I know the experience has been a difficult experience. [It] will improve ... and people will be able to enroll by Dec. 15."

House Republicans are seizing on the technical defects after the exchanges opened on Oct. 1 as they push to delay implementation of the health care law, while Democrats are urging more time to overcome the sign-up woes. "Let the goal be here to fix it, not nix it," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J), who later became so frustrated with the Republican Chairman Fred Upton asking him to yield that he exclaimed, "I will not yield to this monkey court."

For your consideration: HIX Vendors Have Security Issues

Republicans and Democrats alike at today's hearing consistently referred back to a Sept. 10 subcommittee hearing with the same four contractors when they pledged that they were ready for Oct. 1. Those same contractors Thursday said their assertion in September remains true, that they were ready, and the problems that occurred were CMS' fault.

Seeking details

“Despite the president’s assertion that ‘we’re well into a tech surge,’ neither the White House nor HHS is providing additional details about which private-sector companies have been engaged or whether they are being engaged through the appropriate procurement processes,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote.

Republicans faulted the website defects less than a week after the end of a partial government shutdown triggered by the party’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act, also known as ‘Obamacare.’ House Republicans have been seeking to delay the Obama health care law. “The rollout of Obamacare is nothing short of a debacle,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia told reporters yesterday in Washington.

Administration officials including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius met at the White House yesterday with the heads of WellPoint, Aetna and at least 10 other insurers to discuss correcting flaws in how data from the health-care marketplaces is transferred to the companies.

Panel hearing

Thursday’s hearing was meant to determine whether breakdowns on the website were caused by the contractors, or “were they told to do it this way” by the Department of Health and Human Services, Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters in Washington.

In addition to CGI Federal, based in Fairfax, Va., and the Quality Software Services unit of Minnetonka, Minn.-based UnitedHealth Group, the committee will hear from executives with Equifax Workforce Solutions, a unit of Atlanta-based Equifax Inc., and a U.S. unit of Serco Group Plc, a U.K. services provider. CGI has been awarded more than $420 million in contracts tied to the health care law.

The “first set of issues” for users was tied to a tool that allows creation of secure accounts developed by another contractor, Campbell said. It was provided by QSSI. That company was awarded more than $150 million in contracts tied to Obamacare, according to an analysis by Peter Gosselin, a senior health analyst with Bloomberg Government in Washington.

QSSI’s Slavitt confirmed that the tool had added capacity and is now “keeping up” with enrollments. Quality Software completed its design and tested the tool in February and March, he said in his written testimony.

Another contractor, Mitre Corp., conducted an independent security risk assessment in February and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved the tool in March, he added. The software is part of the exchange’s registration and access management process.

Website ‘inundated’

“After the launch, was inundated by many more consumers than anticipated,” he said. “Many of the critical components by these multiple vendors were overwhelmed.”

Obama administration officials yesterday briefed House Democrats on the status of the health care law’s implementation.

Representative Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the White House officials outlined steps being taken to reduce errors on the website and “they’re moving forward with more access to phone coverage to give people access to that information.”

Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly said if people can’t access the website and sign up soon, he’d be open to a delay in the penalties for not enrolling. “You can’t ask somebody to pay a penalty based on a certain time frame of availability if that time frame has been contracted through no fault of their own,” Connolly said.

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