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Testing Faulted in HealthCare.gov Web Site Disaster

No clear answers emerged from today's Congressional hearing about widespread problems with the Oct. 1 rollout of the HealthCare.gov Web site, but witnesses agreed that inadequate testing was a key issue.

"It would've been better to have more time" for testing, said Cheryl Campbell, an executive at CGI Federal, one of the main contractors for the system that's costing hundreds of millions of dollars but has proved mainly dysfunctional. Campbell and representatives from three other contractors were grilled by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for some four hours about failures with the Web site, developed to handle consumer registration for health insurance as part of a new law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly referred to as "Obamacare."

The Health Insurance Marketplace site has been plagued with huge, numerous and varied problems since it was unveiled several weeks ago, including the inability to set up accounts and incorrect data being provided to potential insurers. But Campbell said her company performed satisfactory unit tests of parts of the system for which it was responsible. The main problem, she said, was inadequate "integrated, end-to-end testing" of the entire system that was actually the responsibility of a government agency, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The HHS declined to attend the hearing.

Campbell said integrated testing by CMS was only performed in the last two weeks of September before the Oct. 1 rollout. Another witness, Andrew Slavitt of contractor Optum/QSSI, said that ideally such testing should have been done "well before" rollout to allow enough time to correct flaws. "Months would be nice," he responded after repeated questioning about how much testing would normally be sufficient.

Campbell agreed. "We would've loved to have months" for testing, she said.

Committee questioning became contentious throughout the hearing and often broke along partisan lines, much like the debate surrounding the controversial mandate itself.

"I will not yield to this monkey court!" exclaimed Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, during a heated exchange with Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, who questioned a supposedly illegal privacy provision in the "source code" of the site.

But the witnesses themselves were the target of much criticism during the tense hearing. "How do we end up with contractors who say everything is all right when it isn't," asked Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat from California.

"The system became overwhelmed" when it was exposed to heavy use, Campbell said at one point, though Eshoo didn't buy that excuse, pointing out that many commercial sites perform well under much heavier traffic. "Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas," she said.

Under heated questioning, Campbell repeatedly said her company has a team working "around the clock" to address problems with the site. However, several representatives said they still couldn't set up an account at the site, with at least one even trying with a mobile device during the hearing. An attempt to set up an account during the hearing by this reporter also failed, with the message: "Important: Your account couldn't be created at this time. The system is unavailable."

HealthCare.gov site

The error message displayed by HealthCare.gov when trying to set up an account.

A common theme from the witnesses was that their parts of the system performed up to specifications but the system failed when all the various components were integrated and put to heavy use. CMS was responsible, they indicated, but CMS wasn't represented at the hearing.

The committee might get better answers to its questions from CMS in an upcoming hearing, titled "PPACA Implementation Failures: Answers from HHS," scheduled for Oct. 30.

About the Author

David Ramel is the editor of Visual Studio Magazine.

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