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Contractor says it warned U.S. officials about healthcare website risks

(L-R) Cheryl Campbell, Senior Vice President of CGI Federal; Andrew Slavitt, Executive Vice President for Optum/QSSI; Lynn Spellecy, corporate counsel for Equifax Workforce Solutions and John Lau, program director for Serco are pictured at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A software contractor for the U.S. government's troubled new healthcare website said on Thursday that his company warned officials about performance risks before it opened on October 1, saying there was too little time for system testing.

But the lead contractor, CGI Federal, expressed confidence at a congressional hearing that problems with the website at the center of President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy would be fixed in time for millions of people without healthcare insurance to sign up by January 1.

Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president with the parent of Quality Software Services Inc, a unit of health insurers UnitedHealth Group, testified that his company told the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) about concerns involving testing the website.

"We expressed all of those concerns and risks," Slavitt said at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, without immediately elaborating on what those concerns were and who specifically he warned.

"We didn't see the full integrated end-to-end system integrated testing...until a couple of days leading up to the launch," Slavitt said, adding: "Months would be nice."

QSSI, whose responsibilities include the software tool that allows visitors to to create accounts, blamed the site's early bottlenecks on a late decision by officials to require account creation before visitors could determine their eligibility for subsidies and see plan information.

The firms described a situation in which each had a part in developing, but said it was the responsibility of CMS to oversee the integration of the complex system of government databases and insurance information.

The testimony to a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives marked the first full-length public airing for the troubled rollout of the federal online exchange, or marketplace.

Lawmakers are trying to determine why the online portal for uninsured Americans in 36 states has malfunctioned since its October 1 start, the beginning of a six-month enrollment period that is expected to draw at least 7 million people to sign up for federally subsidized private insurance for 2014.

Much of the criticism has come from Republicans who have long opposed the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called "Obamacare," as an unwarranted extension of the federal government.


Republicans who control the panel criticized administration officials and contractors for assuring lawmakers over the summer that the system would work, only to produce an enrollment characterized by crashes, glitches and system failures.

"This is not about blame - this is about accountability, transparency, and fairness for the American public. The broken promises are many," said Representative Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the committee.

"We still don't know the real picture as the administration appears allergic to transparency and continues to withhold enrollment figures," Upton said.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the White House have largely declined to disclose information about the problems plaguing the system. It cost nearly $400 million to build, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Republican John Shimkus of Illinois demanded the names of administration officials involved in decision making: "I would venture to guess the regular bureaucrats did their job. The political appointees manipulated."

Meanwhile, CGI senior vice president Cheryl Campbell sought to dispel concerns that could need months of repair or could even be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch.

"We anticipate that the system, as we have seen, is improving day over day and that we anticipate that people will be able to enroll in the timeframe allotted that's necessary for them to have insurance for the January 1 timeframe," Campbell said at the hearing.

But she was unable to name a specific date when the website might begin operating normally.

Campbell's optimism did little to settle concerns, even among Democrats. Representative Anna Eshoo of California, who said it was "a lame excuse" for contractors and the administration to claim that high volumes of visitors were responsible for problems.

"Taxpayers paid you a lot of money and you're essentially saying to us that everything's alright when it's not," Eshoo told Campbell.

Democrats largely dismissed the Republican rhetoric as partisan politics, saying the committee's goal should be to "fix, not nix" the law.

"The Affordable Care Act is an enormous success with one obvious exception: it has a poorly designed website," said Representative Henry Waxman of California, the lead Democrat on the panel.