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Contractors say don’t blame us for rollout of site

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration launched its troubled health care insurance Web site after only a minimum of crucial system-wide testing, despite contractors warning officials repeatedly about performance risks, a congressional panel heard Thursday.

Witnesses said the administration did not conduct end-to-end testing of the system’s technology backbone until just the two weeks before one of the lynchpins of President Obama’s landmark healthcare policy opened to consumers Oct. 1. At a U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee hearing, contractors also blamed the administration for a last-minute design change that has been identified as a flaw responsible for leading millions of visitors into system bottlenecks.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency implementing the online marketplace, acknowledged the contractors’ testimony.

“Due to a compressed time frame the system wasn’t tested enough,” Bataille said. “What’s important to realize is that we are putting in place a much more robust performance testing system now.”

She also told reporters that in-house “business decisions” prompted Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to require online visitors to create accounts before shopping for health plans and prompted the agency to assume the key role of system integrator for

The glitches, delays and errors that have characterized the Web site are a growing concern for Republicans and Democrats alike. The administration is racing to solve the problems in time for millions of uninsured Americans to enroll for coverage and begin receiving health benefits from Jan. 1, as stipulated by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.”

CMS said Thursday that about 700,000 applications have been submitted so far for U.S. health care coverage through the exchanges.

“We would certainly have liked to see as much time as possible for end-to-end testing,” said Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president for the parent of CGI Federal and Quality Software Services Inc., a unit of health insurer UnitedHealth Group.

QSSI produced the federal data hub and a software tool for creating online consumer accounts, which was at the center of early logjam problems. The design change involved turning off anonymous browsing and requiring online visitors to create accounts before researching health plan information and determining their eligibility for federal subsidies to help pay premiums.

Months of testing preferred

Slavitt and Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president for CGI Federal, the main contractor, said months of testing would have been preferable for a big new information technology system but that the testing schedule for was determined by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The rollout went ahead after CGI Federal and Quality Software Services Inc. said it made Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services aware of its concerns throughout the system’s development, but Slavitt was not aware of any response from the agency.

“The concerns that we had, which were mostly related to testing and the inability to get as much testing as we’d like — we expressed all of those concerns and risks to CMS,” he said. “My understanding is they understood those and were working on them. But I don’t know further.” is the online web portal for a federal health insurance marketplace that contractors described as one of the most complicated large-scale IT systems in existence.