Obamacare’s Unexpected Costs: Where Is Healthcare.gov Now?

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Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chair of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, published a post on the committee’s website recently, and you can likely guess what it’s about. The post listed the “10 things we learned about the president’s health care law over the past month.” Not a bad adaptation to the 21st century Buzzfeed list culture, but overall, the post is very much in keeping with partisan critiques heard since December. Not one, but two items mentioned Healthcare.gov, which had a disastrous and highly public rollout last year. Specifically, Barrasso discussed “more troubles” from the website and a hacking that occurred in July.

His discussion of the troubled site brings up old issues – in particular, it reminds us what went wrong almost a full year ago and begs the question: Is it any better? What has happened since that PR nightmare first took place? Looking back, many of the site’s problems are easily explained. Programmers were working under unreasonable deadlines with constantly changing criteria. Rushed work led to an enormous number of errors that were never found and fixed because much of Healthcare.gov was frightfully under-tested. The problems, already present, were only exacerbated by the enormous amount of traffic the site received in its initial debut. Jeffrey Zients, a former healthcare management consultant, was brought on board as of October 9, 2013, to lead work on website repair.

By December, Zients and his team had successfully smoothed over many of the backend coding problems. The U.S. government then switched contractors, moving from CGI Group, the Canada-based tech firm that had been working on Healthcare.gov prior to it coming online, to Accenture, the group that worked on California’s heath insurance site. The move was explained as a result of frustrations with the speed and quality at which CGI had been fixing problems in the site’s coding. CGI wasn’t entirely to blame, or even mostly to blame, as former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius indirectly said when she resigned. “Could we have used more time and testing? You bet. I’ve said that from the start,” she told NBC, also saying that the timeline they’d foreseen was “flat-out wrong.”

What’s gone wrong recently?

Coming up to speed: Problems with the site decreased rapidly a few months into repair, and in February, the director of communications of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services reported that the response time remained below half a second, and error rates below half a percent.

“Some of the things that were being reported early on, a lot of folks experienced them, whether it was flow (from page to page on the site) or they got kicked out of it. We don’t see any of those things any more,” said Jodi Ray, a teacher at the University of South Florida, to the Tampa Bay Times.

Even so, other issues came up. Early in February, some 22,000 filers through the government website were asking that mistakes be rectified. According to The Washington Post, people were reporting that the site had overcharged them, led them to enroll in the wrong program, or refused coverage, and these complaints were slow to be processed.

But with next open enrollment period coming up, most believe Healthcare.gov shouldn’t be a problem this time around. “The exchange can’t work worse than it did last year,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, chief executive of Evergreen Health Co-op, to The New York Times. But at what cost?

That’s the point Barrasso made earlier this week, and it’s not an unfounded concern, especially given Democrats’ examination of House Speaker John Boehner’s legal fees. According to a report from the Office of the Inspector General of Health and Human Services, about 20 out of 60 contracts were over budget. Barrasso gave a blanket cost of $800 million, rather than the specific amount the administration has gone over the budget by — about $283 million.

HHS spokesman Kevin Griffis told The Washington Times that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services “takes its responsibility for contracting oversight seriously and has moved aggressively to implement extensive contracting reforms,” which includes, among many things, “ending our largest contract with CGI and moving to a new type of contract with Accenture that rewards performance.”

What about the Healthcare.gov hacking?

In July it was discovered that a hacker managed to break into a portion of Healthcare.gov and released malevolent software. “Our review indicates that the server did not contain consumer personal information; data was not transmitted outside the agency, and the website was not specifically targeted,” HHS said in a statement. “Not specifically targeted” refers to the fact that the malware was not made for Healthcare.gov in particular — it was a “boilerplate botnet package,” a type of malware used by hackers when they want to knock a site offline.

Many websites, government and otherwise, are hacked into every year. Last year hackers found their way into the sites of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Reserve, and The New York Times, according to Forbes. Big sites are big targets, so one could argue it was only a matter of time.

On the other hand, some, such as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), argued at the time that it was yet another mistake on the part of the Obama administration and programers. “Considering this Administration launched healthcare.gov over the objections of CMS, it’s unsurprising that the website has suffered a ‘malicious attack,’ ” said Issa.

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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