White House Discussed Scrapping Entire Obamacare Website

Sunday, 01 Dec 2013 12:04 AM

By Todd Beamon

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The abysmal rollout of the Obamacare individual mandate last month exposed a website so badly flawed that White House officials considered junking it altogether, according to a detailed account of the inner workings of the healthcare plan's debacle.

While President Barack Obama touted publicly that "interest way exceeded expectations, and that's the good news" during the first weekend of the rollout, White House officials were considering another question, The New York Times reports in a front page article Sunday — "Should we just take the website down altogether for a time so it can be fixed?"

The question was dismissed by Todd Park, the administration's chief technology officer, because, he said, HealthCare.com had to be up and running for one simple reason — "To see where the problems are," the Times reports.

"One senior White House official said they briefly considered scrapping the system altogether. They decided it was fixable."

The site was taken down that first weekend, Oct. 4-6, for technology repairs during off-peak hours.

As time ticked down on Saturday's deadline for having HealthCare.gov operating smoothly for millions of Americans, the Times details major missteps by the Obama administration as the Oct. 1 rollout approached.

They included the fact that the website, which covers 36 states that lack their own health exchanges, "had never been fully tested," and that HealthCare.gov "was flailing in part because of the Medicare agency's decision not to hire a 'systems integrator' who could coordinate its complex parts."

"The White House would also have to hold together a fragile alliance of Democratic lawmakers and insurance executives," the newspaper reports.

"If we don't do that," one senior White House adviser told the Times, "it's a very serious threat to the success of the legislation and a very serious threat to him," referring to Obama. "We get that."

The article further discloses how the effort to improve HealthCare.gov "exposed a deeply dysfunctional relationship between the Department of Health and Human Services and its technology contractors, and tensions between the White House chief of staff and senior health department officials.

"It strained relations between the Obama administration and the insurance industry, helped revive a Republican Party battered after the two-week government shutdown and frustrated, even infuriated, Congressional Democrats," the Times reports.

HealthCare.gov continues be attacked by Republicans for its technological and accessibility problems.

In addition, more than 5 million Americans have seen their existing insurance policies cancelled since the rollout began, despite President Obama's promise that they could keep their health plans and their doctors if they chose to — and the GOP-controlled House voted to let Americans keep their health insurance policies for another year.

The day before the Nov. 15 House vote, Obama announced that he would grant by executive order a one-year reprieve for Americans whose health policies have been canceled.

He had hoped to stem Democratic defections, the Times reports.

A total of 39 Democrats voted for the bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, "far fewer than the White House had feared," the Times reports.

According to the Times, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was "ebullient" the day before the Obamacare rollout. HealthCare.gov's development was overseen by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which falls under her department.

"We're about to make some history," Sebelius said. White House officials were just as excited about the high traffic on the first day, the Times reports.

"The traffic is really high," the article quotes White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough as saying.

But another reality was unfolding at the offices of CGI Federal in Northern Virginia, according to the account. The company is the U.S. subsidiary of a Montreal-based information technology firm that built most of HealthCare.gov.

"Technicians were frantic," the Times reports. "They were beginning to realize what the White House did not: that the exchange's problems involved much more than delays caused by high traffic.

"Errors were popping up everywhere. Software that assigned identities to enrollees and ensured that they saw only their own personal data, known internally as the EIdM, was being quickly overwhelmed. Customers could not log in to create accounts."

The article later says: "As engineers tried to come to grips with repeated crashes, a host of problems were becoming apparent: inadequate capacity in its data center and sloppy computer code, partly the result of rushed work amid the rapidly changing specifications issued by the government.

"The website had barely been tested before it went live, so a large number of software and hardware defects had not been uncovered," the Times reports. "Fixing the account creation software simply exposed other problems; people still could not register to buy insurance.

"A system intended to handle 50,000 simultaneous users was fundamentally unstable, unable to handle even a tiny fraction of that. As few as 500 users crippled it, according to people involved.

"These are not glitches," one insurance executive told the Times during the early days of the debacle. "The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, 'It's awful, just awful.' "

Despite Obama's promise that HealthCare.gov will be working better by December, White House officials continue to fear a rush of visitors to the site, according to the Times.

"The immediate goal in recent days has been to double HealthCare.gov's capacity, so that 50,000 people will be able to log on simultaneously and 800,000 can visit in a single day," the article says. Technology officials also are creating an overflow "waiting room."

But "it remains unclear whether the enrollment data being transmitted to insurers is completely accurate," the Times reports. "In a worst-case scenario, insurance executives fear that some people may not actually get enrolled in the plans they think they have chosen, or that some people may receive wrong information about the subsidies for which they are eligible."

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