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Obamacare Contractors Head To Capitol Hill For House Hearing


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. On Capitol Hill, it was a day of tough questions and finger-pointing. Lawmakers got their first chance to grill government contractors over the botched rollout of the new government health insurance website. It was the first in a series of hearings. And as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle directed their anger at the contractors - and at each other.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: If you took each of the contractors' word for it, what doomed the launch of the federal health care exchanges wasn't any of them individually. Each was feverishly prepping and testing its own portion of the project, but in near isolation until the last moment. And that was the problem. After more than three weeks of watching delays and crashes on the website, Republican Mike Burgess, of Texas, asked if there might be someone higher up to blame.

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS: It seems like we've got several fingers but no palm here. Was there anyone involved in sort of overseeing the entire - the entirety of this, to make sure it worked from A to Z?

CHANG: The answer he got, over and over? The federal government - or to be exact, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, otherwise known as CMS. On the hot seat today were four companies that contracted with CMS. CGI Federal was the main contractor. And Democrat Anna Eshoo told its representative, Cheryl Campbell: Don't even try to escape blame for the website's logjams. Eshoo said, in Silicon Valley - where she's from - that's usually not a problem.

REP. ANNA ESHOO: There are thousands of websites that carry far more traffic, so I think that's really kind of a lame excuse. Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas, and ProFlowers doesn't crash on Valentines Day.

CHANG: But lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee weren't singularly focused on the quality of the technology. At one point, Republican Joe Barton, of Texas, wanted to talk about privacy. He interrogated Campbell about a warning on the website that visitors might have to disclose more information than they were used to on other medical forms. At that moment, Democrat Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, jumped in.

REP. FRANK PALLONE: So once again, here we have my Republican colleagues trying to scare everybody, hoping...

REP. JOE BARTON: Will the gentleman yield...

PALLONE: No, I will not yield to this monkey court, or whatever this thing is.

BARTON: This is not a monkey court.

PALLONE: Do whatever you want. I'm not yielding.

CHANG: Monkey court or not, this panel wanted to get to the bottom of why a massive government project - spread out over 55 contractors and five government agencies - didn't start testing the fully integrated product until two weeks before the Oct. 1st launch date, even though the companies said they should have gotten months.

REP. FRED UPTON: Did any of you come forth to the administration and say, this thing may not be ready on Oct. 1st; we might want a delay until we can get it right? Any hands up? No.

CHANG: Republican Fred Upton, who chairs the committee, asked CGI's Campbell: Did you know about any problems and just decided not to tell the government?

CHERYL CAMPBELL: It was not our decision to go live.

UPTON: It was not your decision to go live?

CAMPBELL: It was not our - it was CMS' decision. It was not our decision, one way or the other.

UPTON: Did you ever recommend to CMS that perhaps they weren't ready, and they might want to delay the date?

CAMPBELL: It was not our position to do so.

CHANG: Other contractors, like Optum, said they did try to say something to the government about needing more time to test the product. Committee members asked Optum's Andrew Slavitt if administration officials responded with any concern.

ANDREW SLAVITT: We never - I never got a depiction from them. But we did fully talk about the risks that we saw, and we passed those along - all along the way.

CHANG: And, Slavitt noted, another reason the website jammed up in the beginning was because the government made too many last-minute changes.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.