Administration Feared Obamacare Website Developers Could ‘Crash the Plane at Take-Off’

Nov 15, 2013 2:45pm

Just months before Healthcare.gov launched, senior Obama administration officials questioned whether the website’s developers would meet the Oct. 1 target launch date and expressed anxiety that after several benchmarks were missed, a condensed schedule to test the site could be inadequate. That’s according to a series of documents provided to congressional investigators by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In emails sent between July 8 and July 20, administration officials discussed their sworn testimony pledging to meet the Oct. 1 deadline while at the same time officials were privately concerned that the entire launch was in jeopardy with the website’s developers making slow progress on the site.

In a July 16 email sent ahead of a meeting with the site’s chief contractor CGI Federal, HealthCare.gov project manager Henry Chao, who was a key witness during the House Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing earlier this week, wrote, “I just need to feel more confident they are not going to crash the plane at take-off, regardless of price.”

The next day, July 17, Chao testified at a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that Healthcare.gov would be ready to launch on-time. He then distributed a video link to his testimony to several people he described as “leaders in this endeavor,” urging developers to ensure his pledge under oath did not come back to haunt him.

“I wanted to share this with you so you can see and hear that both [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner] and I under oath stated we are going to make October 1,” Chao wrote in a July 20 email where he distributed the link to his testimony. “I would like you [to] put yourself in my shoes standing before Congress, which in essence is standing before the American public, and know that you speak the tongue of not necessarily just past truths but the truth that you will make happen.”

Just weeks later, Tavenner testified that “the majority of the development of the services required to support open enrollment beginning on October 1″ was already completed.

In light of the documents, Republicans are now openly doubting the administration’s ability to fix the website by its Nov. 30 goal and its ability to begin delivering healthcare at the beginning of the year.

Reacting to the release of the documents, Patti Unruh, a CMS spokeswoman, wrote in an email that the healthcare website “is a complex project” that presented developers “with a short timeline” so concerns “were prioritized to meet the October 1 launch date.”

“This email discusses one small piece of ongoing discussions about managing deliverables and communicating expectations that were on a short timeline to meet October 1st. Management concerns about meeting timelines are expected for any project of this size and scope,” she wrote. “The Federal Marketplace is comprised of distinct pieces of functionality that, together, make up the full integrated system–plan management, eligibility and enrollment and financial management. CMS prioritized essential functionality to be live on Oct 1 to ensure that consumers would be able to apply for eligibility and select a plan. Other functionality will come online over time.”

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