WASHINGTON – A nonpartisan congressional investigation has concluded that management failures by the Obama administration set the stage for the computer woes that paralyzed the rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care program last year, officials told The Associated Press.
The findings are in a report to be released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, which has spent months investigating the chaotic rollout of Obama’s signature program and its website. GAO is the nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress.
Republicans have hammered at the president over the program known as “Obamacare” and hope to capitalize on its problems in the November congressional elections.
The health law, passed in 2010, is intended to extend insurance coverage to millions of Americans who had lacked it. Republicans have long opposed the law, particularly its requirement for Americans to carry insurance or face penalties.
Obama has already survived the worst fallout from the bungled launch of the program, so the report is unlikely to create major political problems for the White House and Democrats generally. But it does shine light on what was going on behind the scenes even as administration officials fostered the impression that signing for health care would be simple, like shopping online.
Obama’s political operatives harnessed technology to help him win a second term in the White House, but his staff has had its troubles with administrative details.
Spokesman Aaron Albright said the administration takes its responsibility for contract oversight seriously and has already started carrying out improvements that go beyond GAO’s recommendations. The congressional investigators recommended a cost control plan and other changes to establish clear procedures and improve oversight.
Investigators found that the administration kept changing the contractors’ marching orders for the HealthCare.gov website, creating widespread confusion and leading to tens of millions of dollars in additional costs.
Republican and Democratic congressional aides briefed on the report told the AP that it faults the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services — for ineffective oversight of contracts for the site’s computerized sign-up system and its electronic back office. The federal agency, known as CMS, was designated to administer Obama’s health care law.
The aides said they were briefed by GAO on a late draft of the report. They spoke only on condition of anonymity, saying they couldn’t be quoted by name discussing the report ahead of its official release.
The front end of the system locked up the same day it was launched, Oct. 1, and it was down most of that initial month. The electronic back office had fewer problems.
Confronted with an embarrassing spectacle, the White House sent in management consultant Jeff Zients as a troubleshooter. One of his first decisions was to nudge CMS aside as project leader and give the agency a supporting role.
Zients’ rescue operation got the site working by early December. Another major contractor, Accenture, was brought in to help fix things. Eventually, some 8 million Americans people managed to sign up, far exceeding expectations.
Nonetheless, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stepped down amid complaints by White House officials that the president was blind-sided by the problems.