Tech firms enlist to fix health-care website - The Buffalo News

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Tech firms enlist to fix health-care website

WASHINGTON – Google, Red Hat, Oracle and other technology companies are contributing dozens of computer engineers and programmers to help the Obama administration fix the U.S. health-insurance exchange website.

The help is arriving as the government’s main site for medical coverage remains plagued by repeated outages a month after its Oct. 1 debut. Michael Dickerson, a site reliability engineer on leave from Google, and Greg Gershman, innovation director for smartphone application maker Mobomo, are among those helping, the Obama administration said Thursday.

“They are working through the analytics of what happens on the site to prioritize what needs to be fixed,” Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters on a conference call. Dickerson is working to improve the stability of the website, while Gershman is “helping the development process be more agile.”

The administration began touting a “tech surge” on Oct. 20, to cure the software errors underlying that have hindered people from enrolling in coverage and insurers from collecting data. Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, apologized before Congress this week and said her agency has pulled in outside help to achieve “an optimally functioning” exchange by the end of November.

“I know it’s a very political topic,” Oracle Chief Executive Officer Larry Ellison said Thursday at the software maker’s annual meeting. “As an information technology company, we are doing everything we can to help.”

Oracle, based in Redwood City, Calif., is the world’s largest database-software maker. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google and Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat declined to comment.

The federal website is the main portal for millions of uninsured people in 36 of the 50 states to shop for private health insurance plans, with the help of government tax credits, as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. Fourteen states have created their own exchanges.

The administration hasn’t previously quantified the tech surge. Jeffrey Zients, President Obama’s incoming chief economic adviser, was brought in to advise Bataille’s agency, and the project’s management has since been reorganized, with UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s Quality Software Services unit now overseeing the entire operation.

The site previously had no lead contractor. It was largely built by a unit of Montreal-based CGI Group. UnitedHealth’s QSSI built the “data services hub” that collects information about customers from the IRS and other agencies, and feeds it to the federal and state websites.

Dickerson is working with QSSI, while Gershman is working with CGI Group, Bataille said The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, led by Marilyn Tavenner, had been responsible for building and running the exchange website.

Meanwhile, even though millions of people tried to use the federal health insurance website on its first day of operation, fewer than a dozen successfully enrolled in health plans, records of internal government meetings show.

The enrollment numbers caused alarm among administration officials who were publicly promoting the number of visitors to the site.

One document, from the afternoon of Oct. 2, says that “approximately 100 enrollments have happened.” By the end of the day, according to another document, “there were 248 enrollments.”

The numbers, first reported by CBS News, come from notes taken during meetings in a so-called war room established by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency running the federal insurance marketplace, also known as an exchange.

Sebelius, at the congressional hearing this week, refused to disclose how many people had signed up. “We do not have any reliable data around enrollment,” she said.

The notes suggest that at least some federal officials were trying to keep a daily count of enrollments. However, the White House said the statistics were not official or final.

Meetings in the war room included administration officials and federal contractors who were trying to figure out what went wrong with the exchange.

The notes were obtained by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The panel requested the materials from 11 of the top contractors working on the project.

The documents suggest that administration officials were dismayed when they discovered that consumers could not use the website to shop for insurance, as the White House had urged people to do.

“Consumer access issues are occurring; some estimates show 40,000 people in the waiting room,” say notes from the afternoon of Oct. 2.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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