ACA-Obamacare Contractors Face the Monkey Court

Pass the BuckOn Thursday, October 24, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held what we are sure will be the first of many congressional oversight hearings on the abysmal rollout of healthcare.gov. One thing we learned from the four and a half hour hearing was that according to the contractors that built the system, all the components of healthcare.gov are working perfectly, just not perfectly together.

Representatives from CGI, the main contractor tasked with creating the federal exchange, QSSI, the contractor in charge of creating the FFM data hub that helps verify applicants’ incomes and other personal details, Equifax Workforce Solutions, the contractor charged with creating the subsidy and income verification technology, and Serco, the contractor involved in processing paper applications, were all present at the hearing. Contractors responsible for healthcare.gov have, for obvious reasons, received a lot of bad press lately and Thursday’s hearing gave them the opportunity to explain their side of the story as to what went wrong. Instead, the contractors gave many “non-answers” in bureaucratic terms. Rather than owning up to any mistakes, the contractors pointed the finger at CMS and insisted that their individual products were working. Much of the hearing was spent with representatives from each company repeatedly stating that they worked under the direction of their client, CMS, so any questions regarding the testing process and whether or not anyone was aware of the program flaws prior to open enrollment should be directed to the federal government.

The representatives from CGI and QSSI received most of the heat from the committee, as their flawed products have actually prevented many consumers from even getting to the Equifax and Serco portions of the marketplace. When asked if the contractors reported any of the issues to CMS prior to the opening of the exchanges, the contractors each said that the errors were reported to CMS, but it was not their position to advise the client to delay the launch of healthcare.gov. No one took responsibility for the mess that is healthcare.gov and to take it a step further, all contractors claimed that they were not involved in determining when the “end-to end” testing would take place. CGI did admit that they did not begin testing the site until two weeks prior to the open enrollment date, which was clearly not enough time. QSSI was involved in the “end-to-end” testing too and did receive several error reports during that process. The late testing, according to QSSI, was partially due to the fact that CMS made a late policy decision to have consumers create an account on healthcare.gov for subsidy purposes before allowing them to shop for plans.

While no one owned up to their product being flawed, the contractors did present a unified opinion that healthcare.gov is fixable. How long the fixes will take and how successful they will be remains a matter of conjecture.

Rather than owning up to any mistakes, the contractors pointed the finger at CMS and insisted that their individual products were working.

Rather than owning up to any mistakes, the contractors pointed the finger at CMS and insisted that their individual products were working.

The hearing did have some fiery debates. One in particular was sparked by Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) who believes that certain codes violate some HIPPA privacy rules. Behind the FFM firewall, not seen by consumers, is a line of code that says that by creating an FFM account and agreeing to the terms of use “you have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding any communicating or data transmitting stored on this information system.” Representative Barton grilled CGI about the legality of this code and CGI pointed the finger at CMS for making the call to include that line. “We’re telling every American if you sign up for this, or you even attempt to sign up, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Barton.

Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) began his questioning immediately after Barton and he spent most of his time disagreeing with Barton’s argument that the line of code is a HIPPA violation. Pallone’s contention is based on the principal that the line of code in question only applies when the consumer creates a login account, not when they are enrolling in a plan. Since HIPPA only applies where health information is concerned, he argued that Barton’s argument is, in fact, faulty. After bring interrupted while making his case, a worked up Pallone shouted “I will not yield to this monkey court!”

Throughout the hearing Democrats highlighted the popular provisions of PPACA even when expressing dismay at the technological problems to-date. Democrats stressed that the website is a huge component of the law and one that needs to be fixed, but it is not the only part of the law. Republicans, on the other hand, wanted to know who exactly was in charge of making all the policy decisions that lead to the healthcare.gov disaster.

While the hearing gleaned a lot of information from the contractors, many questions remain unanswered. Which brings us to next week’s CSPAN DVR alert! HHS Secretary Sebelius is set to testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee and CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner will come before the Congress too. We can’t wait!

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