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October 26, 2013

New boss for fixing the balky health care website

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly a month into the dysfunctional rollout, the Obama administration acknowledged the wide extent of its health care website’s problems Friday and abruptly turned to a private company to oversee urgent fixes. Setting a new timetable, officials said most issues will be repaired by the end of November.

It will take a lot of work, but “HealthCare.gov is fixable,” declared Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant brought in by the White House. By the end of next month, he said, there will be many fewer signup problems such as computer screen freezes — but he stopped short of saying problems will completely disappear.

The administration also said it is promoting one of the website contractors, a subsidiary of the nation’s largest health insurance company, to take on the role of “general contractor” shepherding the fixes.

Quality Software Services Inc. — owned by a unit of UnitedHealth Group— was responsible for two components of the government’s online insurance system. One is the data hub, a linchpin that works relatively well, and the other is an accounts registration feature that initially froze and caused many problems.

Zients reported that his review found dozens of issues across the entire system, which is made up of layers of components meant to interact in real time with consumers, government agencies and insurance company computers.

HealthCare.gov was supposed to be the online portal for uninsured Americans to get coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care law. Envisioned as the equivalent of Amazon.com for health insurance, it became a huge bottleneck immediately upon launch Oct. 1. A major embarrassment for the administration, it is likely to end up as a case study of how government technology programs can go awry.

The briefing from Zients came a day after executives of QSSI and the other major contractor, CGI Federal, told Congress that the government didn’t fully test the system and ordered up last-minute changes that contributed to logjams. Next week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill.

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