WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kurt DelBene’s office is on the sixth floor of the fortresslike Department of Health and Human Services, overlooking the Capitol reflecting pool. With little but a desk, a small laptop and monitor, it looks barren, like someone just moved out.
But DelBene, a longtime Microsoft executive, moved in six weeks ago. He came from the other Washington, after President Obama named him HealthCare.gov’s new fix-it guy — the successor to “tech-surge czar” Jeff Zients.
DelBene is here to shore up the famously flawed Obamacare website, not decorate an office. The most telling evidence of his arrival is on the wall to the right of his workstation, where a large whiteboard is covered with scribbled notes about databases, security features, website capacity and the like.
It’s a big list of lists.
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“I’m a list guy. I like to make lists of everything. It’s a great thought process for me if I can write the list over and over again,” says the 53-year-old DelBene, whose wife, Suzan DelBene, is a freshman congresswoman representing Washington state’s First District. “The process … is therapeutic.”
It’s a strategy that has served DelBene well in the past, as he helped transform Microsoft Office from a desktop suite of applications into an online service. He’s taking a similar approach here as he helps define the next stage in the reinvention of HealthCare.gov, whose disastrous debut rocked the Obama presidency.
In a sense, DelBene’s move east is symbolic of government’s growing need to reach beyond the Beltway for the sort of technical expertise honed over years in the private sector. HealthCare.gov proved it: Consumers expect websites to work — and they get mad when they don’t.
Among the tasks high on DelBene’s list: upping the capacity of the website, improving security and fixing the back end of a system that still has trouble sealing enrollees’ deals with insurers. His job is about triage, curing the sickest parts first. And like any good triage doc, he’s meticulous, purposeful and pragmatic — plus he likes to move fast. The job may only last six months.
“He creates a very high sense of urgency. In the tech industry, speed is of the essence, and sometimes we all collectively need to stop and prioritize as opposed to trying to solve every problem at once,” says Jeff Teper, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for office servers and services, who worked under DelBene. “It wasn’t that he was micromanaging us — that was just not his style, but he was leading with a commitment to attention to detail and excellence.”
Underlings say DelBene ensured the team always had a clear strategy — something critics say was sorely lacking in the initial buildup to HealthCare.gov’s Oct. 1 launch. As early as May 2010, members of the National Economic Council had urged the White House to bring on an adviser with management, insurance and tech know-how to help build the Obamacare website. Instead, the policy wonks took over — an ill-fated decision that resulted in a botched website.
DelBene isn’t a health-care guy, but his business and tech savvy run deep. A former consultant at McKinsey, he joined Microsoft in 1992 and rose to Office division chief, helping it grow from under $5 billion in revenue to more than $22 billion. His lists kept his team of executives and 6,000 engineers focused, accountable and on track to deliver products used by millions. He led the software giant’s shift to the cloud, a massive overhaul for a company traditionally focused on desktop software.
A software engineer by training, DelBene (pronounced Del-BEN-ay) has a long history of fixing things that don’t quite work in the modern age. For years, he’s been restoring British clunkers from the 1960s in the garage at his home in Medina. As a kid, he watched James Garner drive a Formula One car in the 1966 movie “Grand Prix,” and he’s been obsessed ever since.
At 5, he jacked up the rear of a car, just to figure out how. About 10 years ago, he bought himself an old Formula One car, a prop from “Grand Prix.” And, eventually, he started racing cars as well.
Today, he drives a 1967 Mini Cooper he jury-rigged with a modern cylinder head and a computerized control unit. Ken Glass, who has known DelBene since they met at AT&T’s Bell Labs in 1982, says the ex-Microsoft man especially loves cars that don’t work. “It’s about the hunt of solving a problem,” he says of DelBene.
Now, he’s using that fix-it philosophy to help usher a traditional — some might say antiquated — industry like health care into the Internet age, where simplicity and ease-of-use are critical. “You should be able to use software without an instruction manual,” he says.
His road to this job was a long one. It began in July — about 12 weeks before the launch of HealthCare.gov — when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced a massive reorganization. Ballmer offered DelBene a new role, but DelBene turned it down — “amicably,” he says. “It was an important role, but it wasn’t one that I could get passionate about,” DelBene says, keeping mum on the specifics. He agreed to stay on until the end of 2013, then considered advising budding startups or working for tech companies and nonprofits.
In mid-November — as even Democratic senators started complaining about the site’s failings — his wife suggested to the administration that her husband might be able to help. Zients, now the head of HealthCare.gov., was moving on to head the National Economic Council.
“It seemed like there was a natural time to move from somebody who’s more business oriented to someone who’s more balanced between the business and the tech side of things,” Kurt DelBene says.
DelBene called Zients, and a few days later, he was on a plane to D.C. to meet with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. On Dec. 17, the White House announced DelBene would succeed Zients, pointing to his expertise in building consumer and enterprise software. (DelBene, who made $7.6 million a year at Microsoft, is donating his salary to the government.)
His lack of experience didn’t seem to matter. “He will be surrounded by health-care policy experts,” says Bob Kocher, a partner at Venrock and a former special assistant to the president for health care on the National Economic Council. “We know that technology experience is what has been lacking thus far in D.C.”
DelBene, who has two grown kids, splits his time between his home in Medina and an apartment he and his wife rented about a mile away from the Capitol. His days start early, about 7:30 a.m., sometimes with a cafeteria run for coffee, which he totes from one meeting to the next. As he talks — in calm, measured, Tom Brokaw-like tones — he checks his lists, taking his glasses on and off.
In meetings last week with Secretary Sebelius and Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) (which oversees HealthCare.gov), he discussed optimizing software, booting up new servers and adding more computing power to existing ones to raise the system’s capacity.
Everyone at CMS is focused on the run-up to March 31, when open enrollment for health coverage in 2014 is set to close. In the weeks beforehand, traffic is expected to surge. DelBene is mindful of the problems that sank HealthCare.gov’s initial launch — insufficient testing and myriad glitches.
He worries, he told Tavenner, that contractors like Optum/QSSI aren’t scheduled to test the new configuration until March 1.
“We should really push them to do incremental testing,” he said. “You’re not going to turn things on at the new capacity level and expect it all to work.” And he stressed the importance of “bug triage” — resolving code problems that make the system stall.
A top priority, he says, is making the back-end system for transferring customer information to insurers more reliable, even as customer data changes. That entails building an interconnected system that can beam customer information correctly to insurance companies.
So far, that data transfer has been riddled with errors. And the payment systems that send federal subsidies to insurance companies to cover customers aren’t running, critics say.
“The fact remains: Neither the law nor the website are ready for prime time,” said Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the vice chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “Anyone and everyone involved in ‘fixing’ the completely flawed and still incomplete HealthCare.gov has a tall task.”
Others say it’s unfair to expect such a complex system to work immediately.
DelBene’s process is collaborative and open, his colleagues say — which is important in his new role. “You can see him evolve his positions as he gets more data. It’s not like he’s established his positions and [listening] is just a formality — just Kabuki ritual theater,” says U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.
It’s DelBene’s job to observe, digest and persuade D.C. bureaucrats that his vision for making sure HealthCare.gov works is sound, all in a politically charged environment in which he doesn’t call the shots. CMS and its many contractors are ultimately driving the decisions. “It’s very much a role of leading by influence and networking,” DelBene says. “So I had obvious apprehensions about that.”
Whatever his apprehensions, he tries not to take himself too seriously. In the White House’s Roosevelt Room, DelBene recently gave President Obama his first briefing on the website’s progress. “He was very engaged,” says DelBene of the president, “and [he] liked the direction we were taking things.”
After finishing up his part of the presentation, he felt a “tingle” in his throat, as though he was going to start coughing. He didn’t want to disturb anyone, so he headed for the door to the hallway — or so he thought. “I started opening the door to the closet!” he recalls, and there was laughter all around.
“Oh! The new guy!” The president said.
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Additional reporting by Wired senior editor Cade Metz.