A federal official directly responsible for Healthcare.gov appeared Wednesday to blame a "subset" of contractors for the website's problems. In doing so, the government was refuting contractor claims that the Website's problems are the government's fault.
But ultimately, Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the agency with direct control over Healthcare.gov's development, left the blame unclear.
Speaking to the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday, Tavenner broadly defended the ability of her agency, the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, to manage contracts.
In her written testimony, Tavenner said, "CMS has a track record of successfully overseeing the many contractors our programs depend on to function." That was immediately followed by: "Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations."
Last week, in a House hearing, some of the top contractors involved with Healthcare.gov blamed the government for not allowing enough time for end-to-end testing prior to the Oct. 1 launch.
But was Tavenner, in her testimony, saying that a "subset of those contracts," as written by the government, were flawed, undercutting the contractors on this project? Was she saying that her agency failed to manage a subset of the contracts? Was she saying that a subset of contractors failed to live up to the terms of their contracts? Or was she somehow making all these points?
Rep. David Nunes (R-Calif.), seemed to gather from Tavenner's written testimony that the fault rested with the contractors. He asked: "In your submitted testimony, you attributed the problems to the Healthcare.gov website, to a subset of contractors, is that correct?"
"I don't think I said that it was due to a subset of contractors," said Tavenner. The problems were due issues like capacity issues, she said, adding that the agency grossly underestimated site traffic.
She also acknowledges that there were functionality issues, such as problems with creating accounts.
Nunes pressed ahead, and reminded Tavenner of testimony in August when the agency assured the committee that contractors on Healthcare.gov were meeting certain targets and milestones.
"There are two possibilities," said Nunes. "First, that the (health) exchanges were progressing fine for years, just as you repeatedly told Congress and the breakdown resulted solely from problems with a few contractors that suddenly occurred 60 days before Obamacare was open to the public." The second possibility is that "there were problems much earlier ... but you did not tell Congress about these. Which is closer to the truth?"
Tavenner said that if she remembers the questions from August as referring to one aspect of the project, the data hub, which was progressing on time and has "operated flawlessly."
The position that the government has staked out is that it was expecting some launch glitches, typical for any large launch, at Healthcare.gov, but was surprised by the problems that did surface.
The U.S. is promising to have to the site fixed by the end of November.
Tavenner's agency is overseen by the U.S. Health and Human Services department. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is due to testify Wednesday.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.
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