Will the Obamacare Rollout Become the First Real Scandal of the Obama Administration?

Republicans have sought to tar the president with scandals at the agency level before. This time is different.
Reuters

What makes something a scandal? Evil intent or incompetence? Sometimes, when it comes to the federal government, it doesn't really matter. Bad management that has bad consequences for real people can be a scandal, whether anyone wanted the result to happen or not.

For years, Republicans have been trying to transform management problems at federal agencies into arguments about the alleged malicious intent of the Obama Administration. So far they have not succeeded.

Benghazi was a security disaster and a tragedy, but the killing of an American ambassador at a barely staffed diplomatic mission—not even a consulate, let alone an embassy—was a result of the State Department strategy about how to deploy diplomats getting ahead of the bureaucracy intended to keep them safe, not a desire by the administration to see American deaths. With the IRS kerfuffle, congressional investigators solicited a biased inspector general's report and held partial hearings that gave a distorted picture of the agency's activities. Extensive efforts to cast the White House as using the IRS in a Nixonian manner to go after political enemies failed.

Now the Republicans are getting ready for a new round of hearings, focused on the launch of Healthcare.gov on October 1. There is no question about the president's intentions when it comes to the rollout of this last, most complex part of his signature legislative initiative: He wants it to work. And yet it is here, where we are beyond any conspiracy-mongering about White House intentions, that the administration may finally find itself caught by its accusers.

If by late November the website for accessing the exchanges in 34 states is largely functional and people are able to buy insurance in a smooth manner, the problems and glitches of its debut will recede into memory, as did similar ones at the launch of Medicare Part D. But if they are not—well, Republicans will have the scandal they long have been seeking. And plenty of Democrats are sure to join them in their criticism.

The president is responsible for his signature legislative accomplishment in a way that runs deeper than his responsibility for nearly anything else the government has done on his watch. Even if the Affordable Care Act is full of legislative compromises, and even if it is falling victim to known flaws that a partisan Congress has been resistant to fixing, it remains quintessentially his law. If it works, it will be his greatest affirmative legacy to America on the domestic front.

Obama should have been fully informed about what the launch was going to be like. If he wasn't told about potential problems with the site, as his Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN Tuesday, that's a problem. It's a problem that she appears not to have known about the extent of the troubles that would plague the site, either. What happened lower in the chain of command to prevent such critical information about the system from reaching the men and women at the top—because the president is right that when he says fixing something is a priority, people jump—is a question for the oversight committees to tease out.

Americans deserve to know how something that has so divided the country over the years, that so many have spent so much energy defending, and that so many people in need have been waiting for turned out the way it did. The administration's message—this is unacceptable and we're fixing it now—may be an understandable public-facing management approach to moving forward. But it's not ultimately going to be an adequate one.

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has been holding a hearing focused on the contractors. Three of the four testifying today previously appeared before the committee on September 10.

Here is a little background on them, and key points from their prepared testimony. I've put the parts of the system they are responsible for in italics so it's easier to follow along in the weeks ahead. I have a feeling we're going to all be hearing about these a lot more in the months ahead.

* Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal Inc., a massive IT contractor, who has responsibility for all of its projects at HHS and several other federal agencies. In her prepared testimony for Thursday's hearing, she outlined what her company does for Healthcare.gov and pointed the finger at the feds, as the ultimate authorities over what her teams did, for any problems:

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have the overall responsibility for administering the Federal Exchange Program System, or the “Federal Exchange.” CGI Federal is the contractor that has developed a portion of the Federal Exchange, the software application known as the Federally Facilitated Marketplace or “FFM.”...

CGI Federal and the many other contractors selected to develop the Federal Exchange perform under the direction and supervision of CMS. As I stated in my September 10 testimony, CMS serves the important role of systems integrator or “quarterback”on this project and is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance of the overall Federal Exchange. The FFM is a combination of a website and a complex transaction processor that must simultaneously help millions of Americans determine their eligibility for insurance and federal subsidies, shop for health plans, and enroll in a qualified health plan.

* Andrew Slavitt, group executive vice president of Optum, a business unit of UnitedHealth Group. Optum owns Quality Software Services, Inc., or QSSI, which built the Data Services Hub part of Healthcare.gov, as well as what he described in prepared testimony as "a registration and access management tool—called the EIDM—that is used as one part of the registration system that allows consumers to create and use an account." The data hub, by all accounts, is in solid shape. But the EIDM is the much-noted login system that prevented many people from creating accounts in the first few weeks of Healthcare.gov's existence.

* Lynn Spellecy, corporate counsel at Equifax Workforce Solutions. Her company provides "income verification services ... to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to assist in their administration of the benefit programs defined by the Affordable Care Act." Equifax Workforce Solutions is a subsidiary of the Equifax credit-reporting agency. According to her prepared testimony, "The Equifax Workforce Solutions income verification solution is working as designed. Since the exchanges first went live on October 1, 2013, we have not experienced any significant problems."

* John Lau, program director of Serco, which provides "eligibility Support Services in support of paper application processing and error and issue resolution on applications regardless of the manner in which they were submitted. Our primary role in the early days of the implementation is to key enter paper applications into the eligibility system."

The key takeaway from his prepared testimony: "Our challenges have included coping with the performance of the portal as that is our means of entering data just as it is for the consumer. With the relatively low volumes of applications we have received thus far, this has not been a problem for us."

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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