Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius arrives Monday at the White House. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
WASHINGTON — The international telecommunications company Verizon has been tasked with helping the government fix the federal health exchange, USA Today has learned.
An informed source in the telecommunications industry said Verizon’s Enterprise Solutions division has been asked by the Department of Health and Human Services to improve the performance of the HealthCare.gov site, which is a key component of the Affordable Care Act. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made official.
HHS office said Sunday the department would reach outside its government contractors to civilian companies that might be able to solve HealthCare.gov’s problems more quickly.
“Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov,” an HHS blog post said on Sunday.
HHS did not respond to a request for confirmation about Verizon. The company also declined to comment.
It makes sense for HHS to seek Verizon’s help, said Aneesh Chopra, the Obama administration’s former chief technology officer and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “There is an existing ‘best and brightest’ available to call in,” Chopra said. “Verizon is one of those already under contract.”
The odds that the problem will be fixed are “50-50,” said Clark Kelso, California’s chief information officer under governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “They’ve got a short window here to try to fix things,” Kelso said. “Simply throwing a lot of new programmers at something like this does not guarantee success.”
According to Verizon’s website, they “provide converged communications, information and entertainment services over America’s most advanced fiber-optic network, and deliver integrated business solutions to customers in more than 150 countries.” The company also works for HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on other information technology contracts.
“They are people who already know the government process,” said Chopra, adding that he did not know the identities of the companies recruited for help.
Chopra said the government’s data hub seems to be working, and “these are known issues. There isn’t a tech expert with a Superman cape soaring in to fix this issue, nor is that needed.”
California’s health insurance exchange experienced many of the same early issues as the federal site, Kelso said.
“We’re starting to do the same thing the feds are where we’re taking the site down over the weekend,” Kelso said. “A common problem for government websites is that you typically underestimate what the load is going to be.”
But California also had bad code from the insurers, which led to people getting bad lists of available doctors in some of the new health plans.
“The result was you were getting bad information about whether your doctor was part of your plan,” Kelso said. “So they deactivated that portion.”
The federal site, Kelso said, seems to have communications issues between the states and insurers.
To a user, it can look like the system is not processing my information; it’d be like Amazon never confirming a payment you’ve made, he said.
Michael Crandell, CEO of RightScale, which helps larger organizations on cloud computing projects, said the site’s problems may taint perceptions about the law and its performance.
“This kind of problem has been around since the earliest days of the Internet,” Crandell said. “Sites getting so much response that they stop working. We call that a ‘success disaster.’ I’m sure they will fix it. What is worrying is that problems with this site a being extrapolated to suggest problems with the actual law. As we know from experience, website performance is the public face that many projects and companies show to the world.”
Chopra said many website launches, including from civilians, tend to have glitches. He cited the United/Continental airlines merger — where the website had issues merging the two companies’ websites for at least a month — as an example.
“I hope this will be a footnote in the Affordable Care Act’s effect on the health care of the American people,” Chopra said.
Alistair Barr, Kelly Kennedy and Jayne O’Donnell write for USA Today.