Health care website had a $630M price tag, officials say

Robert Pear / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 2, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — Federal officials said Friday that they had spent $630 million on information technology for the federal health insurance website, and they expressed growing frustration with hardware and software problems that continued to thwart millions of people trying to buy insurance in the online market.

“We made progress and also ran into some roadblocks that slowed us down,” said Jeffrey Zients, the troubleshooter appointed by President Barack Obama to fix the website and bail the administration out of a political crisis caused by its disastrous debut.

Zients’ progress report, delivered during a conference call with reporters Friday, was less upbeat than one he delivered Oct. 25, just before the crash of a Verizon data center that hosts the website, Health Care.gov. “Make no mistake,” Zients said. “The hardware failure was a setback and was extremely frustrating.”

On the other hand, Zients said, the team working to address the website’s technical issues had made some progress, decreasing the load time so users can see pages after an average wait of one second, down from eight seconds in the first few weeks after the site opened on Oct. 1.

The briefing was notable for its emphasis on computer metrics and software bugs, rather than Obama’s overarching vision of affordable health insurance for all Americans.

Zients said he was focused on measuring and analyzing system performance, but he was unable to say how many hours the website had been down because of failures at the data center run by the Terremark unit of Verizon.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which has responsibility for the website, said earlier in the week that the shutdowns, on Sunday and again at midweek, appeared to have lasted more than 36 hours.

The administration provided no estimate of the number of people who filed applications for insurance in the last week. The latest official figures indicate that 700,000 people filed applications through Oct. 25, about half in the federal marketplace and half in the 14 state-run exchanges.

During the conference call, administration officials were asked if they still had confidence in Henry Chao, the chief digital architect for the online insurance marketplace, who works at CMS.

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the agency, declined to answer directly. “We have confidence in the team that is in place working 24/7 to make improvements week by week,” she said.

Top administration officials said this week that the lead contractor on the project, CGI Federal, a unit of CGI Group, had not met their expectations. But they said they would not remove the company.

“CGI is an important part of the team to make sure that we fix the website, get rid of the glitches and work through our punch list,” said Zients.

Zients said he was methodically working through a list of tasks, which he refused to enumerate. “We’ve fixed the failed hardware, and we will be making further hardware upgrades” over the weekend, he said, so the White House can keep its latest promise: “By the end of November, HealthCare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users.”