By Julian Hattem - 11/19/13 08:15 PM EST
Between 30 and 40 percent of the IT system for the federal health insurance marketplace must still be built, a top official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said Tuesday.
Henry Chao, the agency’s deputy chief information officer, said that a large portion of the behind-the-scenes work has yet to be finished.
“I think it’s just an approximation, we’re probably sitting somewhere between 60 or 70 percent [completed],” he told the House Energy and Commerce Oversight subcommittee.
The disastrous rollout of ObamaCare because of the error-plagued website has been a political boondoggle for Democrats, who have seen President Obama’s approval ratings plummet in polls.
Chao explained that he was not referring to the federal website for buying insurance, HealthCare.gov, or to other aspects of the national marketplace that people looking for insurance will interact with, however.
Instead, he said, the major projects under construction involve back-end work, like setting up the procedure to pay health insurance companies once plans begin in January.
“There is the back office system, the accounting systems, the payment systems, they still need to be [built],” he added.
CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille explained that the back-end systems would allow the federal government to distribute tax subsidies and other payments to health insurance companies, but would not affect individual users.
“It is not anything that is necessary in order for consumers to make a payment because that is something that they do outside of the marketplace, directly to issuers,” she said.
“We had prioritized that essential consumer-facing functionality that needed to be live Oct. 1 in order for consumers to be able to complete their eligibility and enrollment process. The other functionality, that financial management functionality, will come online over time,” she added.
Those back-end systems did not need to be up and running “until about the middle of January,” Bataille said, saying that the agency is “on track” to meet that deadline.
Chao said that the back-end portions of the website were being tested as they were completed, and would not have an impact on users’ experience trying to shop for insurance.
“It won’t affect the front end,” he said.
On Tuesday, Chao said that glitches in the website were being worked out all the time, and that users were having a smoother experience each week.
The CMS has said that the error rate for HealthCare.gov is below 1 percent, though the agency is still working to improve the flawed “834” forms sent to insurance companies.
Still, multiple lawmakers on the House subcommittee told Chao that they had been personally stymied from trying to log on to the federal website.
“When I went to HealthCare.gov this morning, it was still not functioning,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) said.
Democrats shared their concerns about the site’s poor performance, and said that it was making it harder to cheerlead the healthcare overhaul.
“The last six weeks have been difficult ones for supporters of the Affordable Care Act,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
Speaking at an event sponsored by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Obama said that the administration “probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website that needed to work the way it should.”
Late on Monday, the Energy and Commerce Committee released documents showing that the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. had been hired to pinpoint problems in the federal website earlier this year, but Chao said on Tuesday that he had never seen their analysis.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said that if he had, he would have seen that “it is absolutely clear that the startup of the site was not going to work well, if at all, on Oct. 1.”
The Obama administration had set a goal of making sure that at least 80 percent of users attempting to access the website would be able to buy insurance by the end of November.
Chao said that that target is likely similar to rates at the Social Security Administration and other agencies.
“How many people can actually get their business done in one visit?” he said.
“I think some people need extra help. They need assistance to navigate the process and I think that’s probably what” accounts for the 80 percent benchmark, he said.
Chao said that he would have preferred to have more time to test the site, but said that would be true of all projects. He told lawmakers that “100 percent” of the website was built when it was rolled out on Oct. 1, even if it wasn’t working well.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chairman, took issue with that claim.
“Then it’s not built,” Murphy said. “If a car is built but you can’t run the car, then it’s not built. If the website isn’t working then it’s not built.”
Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.
This story was posted at 2:06 p.m. and last updated at 8:15 p.m.