WASHINGTON — Just days before HealthCare.gov went live with disastrous results, top White House officials were excitedly briefing lawmakers, reporters, Capitol Hill staff members and Washington pundits on their expectations for the government’s new health-care website.
Led by David Simas, a senior White House communications adviser, and sometimes joined by Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, and others, the fast-paced PowerPoint briefings showed images of a new website that was elegantly designed, simple to use and ready by Oct. 1.
In fact, the rosy presentations set President Obama up for even more criticism when the portal was swamped by millions of people who quickly found out they could not log on. The technical problems that emerged have raised questions — still not entirely answered — about how much the president’s aides knew, or should have known, about the site’s troubles.
“We knew this was a complex undertaking but did not see the huge volume of demand coming,” McDonough said this week. “And that volume has exacerbated, as the president said the other day, the underlying problems. The fact is we’ll get to the bottom of it and get it fixed.”
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During a hearing Thursday of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, angry lawmakers grilled executives from the private firms hired to design and build the site about whether they had warned government officials.
The executives testified that “end to end” testing of the website did not take place until two weeks before the website debuted — about the same time that the briefings by Simas and McDonough were taking place. And they said problems with the software that powers the website were communicated to senior officials in the president’s administration.
Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president of CGI Federal, a unit of the CGI Group, the main contractor on the federal exchange, said that all of her company’s work had been done “under the direction and supervision” of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
Andrew Slavitt, the UnitedHealth executive responsible for Quality Software Services, told lawmakers that “we made everyone aware of the risks that we saw.”
He added later, “We informed CMS that more testing was necessary.”
Campbell and Slavitt said they would have preferred to have months of testing, as required by industry standards for a project of such immense complexity.
The federal exchange must communicate with other contractors and with databases of numerous federal agencies and more than 170 insurance carriers. Some specialists involved in the repair effort estimated it will be six to eight weeks before the online system operates tolerably, and longer before all the kinks are worked out.
McDonough said officials “anticipated bumps and glitches and problems.” But he and other White House officials declined to say specifically what information CMS and HHS officials communicated to their counterparts at the White House before the website was opened to the public.