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HHS scrambles to fix glitches in insurance exchange roll out

Oct. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments


The Health and Human Services Department is scrambling to boost server capacity and fix software glitches that accompanied the rollout of the federal health care exchanges that opened Oct. 1.

The system was designed to support 60,000 simultaneous users but attracted more than 250,000 in its first few days of operation, according to the agency. The agency had based the traffic estimates on the Medicare Part D site, which attracts 30,000 users at the same time.

The agency did not anticipate the large numbers of people interested in the health care exchanges that visited the sites on the first day, according to the agency.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act set up marketplaces in each state where the uninsured could shop for coverage and qualify for tax subsidies. While some states opted to create and manage their own enrollment systems, 36 states are relying at least in part on the federal government to run their health insurance exchanges.

HHS employees at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — which is in charge of the project — have been working with contractors to add server capacity and fix any software glitches as they occur, according to spokeswoman Tait Sye. The primary contractors on the project are CGI Group Inc. of Montreal, which won a $93.7 million contract in 2011 to build the federal health insurance exchanges, and Quality Software Services Inc. of Columbia, Md., which won a $69 million contract in 2012 to set up a data services hub that would pull needed information from different agencies.

Sye said the agency has reduced wait times by up to 50 percent and has increased capacity. She declined to say how much capacity or how many visitors the system can support.

“But we won’t stop until the doors to are wide open, and at the end of the six-month open enrollment, millions of Americans gain affordable coverage,” she said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House government operations subcommittee, said the blame game has already begun, with HHS blaming contractors and contractors blaming other contractors and HHS.

“It’s a big circular firing squad right now,” he told Federal Times.

He said he has been told that there were both capacity issues and software issues. He said the committee plans to look further into the creation and rollout of the health care exchange system.

“We will be looking at what went wrong and what corrective measures need to be taken,” he said.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., sent a letter Oct. 10 requesting detailed information on what went wrong with the rollout and for the administration to specify the nature of the software glitches and the extent of the technical issues plaguing the exchanges.

“We are concerned by recent comments to the media that the system suffers from architectural problems that need design changes,” they wrote.

In the letter, they ask for a timeline on when HHS will fix the issues and if the administration plans on altering the deadline for individuals to obtain insurance if the system is not fixed soon.

Russell Reeder, president of website and cloud services company Media Temple, said he asked his engineers to examine the code behind the public-facing website and they found an inefficiently built and messy website.

He said HHS and the contractors should have done a better job integrating the system and preparing for the amount of traffic.

But even though the system is off to a rough start, Reeder said HHS could work to make the system better and help it run more smoothly.

Dan Katz, vice president of technology solutions at INADEV, has worked with the Department of Homeland Security and Blue Cross Blue Shield on large IT projects and compared the health exchange glitches to the rollouts of Twitter and popular video games.

He said the system was also more complex than what had been done previously, since it had to be able to query various agency databases in order to help people enroll in insurance plans.

“This is a really huge effort and something on this scale has never been done before,” Katz said.

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