Removal of Obamacare 'Anonymous Shopper' Tool Enrages Republicans

Friday, 22 Nov 2013 08:30 PM

By Cathy Burke

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A key feature of the Obamacare website that would let people window-shop for plans and pricing data was one of the few functions that actually worked — yet administration officials told Congress it "failed miserably" before the Oct. 1 launch, CNN reported Friday.

CNN reported that documents show the "Anonymous Shopper" function passed a key test almost two weeks before the HealthCare.gov launch, yet was turned off and is still unavailable to users.

Its absence, one expert told CNN, is "a major design failure."

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Online window shopping "is how people have become accustomed to shopping online," Sam Karp, vice president of programs at the California HealthCare Foundation, told CNN. "Whether it's for airplane flights or shoes, people have become accustomed to anonymously shopping without entering credit card or personal information."

House Republicans suspect the function was turned off to hide the sticker shock of insurance plans' costs and force Americans to jump through hoops before they could shop, CNN reported.

"Anonymous Shopper" was supposed to let people compare health insurance plans without opening an account, verifying their identity, or determining whether they qualified for a federal subsidy, CNN noted.

Ironically, that's exactly the feature matching President Barack Obama's stated vision for the federal website: to operate just like retail sites that Americans browse and buy from every day, CNN reported.

Henry Chao, the top technology officer for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in the Department of Health and Human Services, who helped build the federal website, told lawmakers last week that the window-shopping feature "failed so miserably that we could not conscionably let people use it."

A CMS document made public by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week tells a different story, CNN reported.

CMS and one of its subsidiaries, the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, was working with government contractors on the website, and declared the Anonymous Shopper feature "tested successfully," revealed "no high severity defects open" and that "remaining lower severity defects will not degrade consumer experience," CNN reported.

Yet CMS raised questions about the "tested successfully" notation, and wrote: "‪CMS believes that the 'yes' that is written on the document in question is likely an error, because the same document also lists a number of ongoing defects and problems with the tool. Additional defects were communicated and discussed in other settings."

A source told CNN that Anonymous Shopper passed testing Sept. 17. The next day, in an internal email obtained by CNN, Chao wrote that the shopper function "isn't needed and thus should be removed."

Interviewed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Nov. 1, Chao said there were 20 outstanding defects that prevented the window-shopping feature from making it online when the healthcare website launched.

But according to a list that CNN obtained, only 12 defects remained when the decision to shelve it was made, and a source told CNN that they were "rather minor" and could have been fixed by launch day.

On Sept. 12 and 18, federal health officials instructed CGI, the site contractor to concentrate instead on a part of the website called "Plan Compare" instead of the "Anonymous Shopper" feature, CNN reported.

"Plan Compare" enables users to look at health insurance plans only after they have created an account at HealthCare.gov, verified their identification and provided qualification details for a subsidy. It was added to the site Oct. 10.

"It's not as good as Anonymous Shopper," California's Karp told CNN. "It doesn't provide the full experience of anonymous shopping that was recommended" in the prototype CMS encouraged state exchanges to adopt, he said, adding that the online window-shopping tool "still remains a key component, particularly to filter plans in states where there are so many plans."

HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters told CNN:

"As we have said, we always envisioned 'anonymous shopping' as a tool that would be a part of HealthCare.gov at some point," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters told CNN. "However, we chose to prioritize other functionality in order to be ready for an Oct. 1 launch."

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Republicans are furious.

"Although CGI officials were not able to identify who within the administration made the decision to disable the anonymous-shopping feature, evidence is mounting that political considerations motivated the decision," Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote in a letter to federal technology executives in October.

So far, no document or testimony has revealed White House involvement in the anonymous-shopper decision.

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