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Contractors deny responsibility for ObamaCare website problems

The private contractors behind HealthCare.gov on Thursday blamed the administration and each other for the disastrous rollout.

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The private contractors behind HealthCare.gov on Thursday blamed the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department — and each other — for the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare's enrollment website.

At Congress's first hearing on the issue, industry witnesses denied responsibility for the system's problems and suggested that HHS had failed to effectively coordinate the project.

The executives, under sharp criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, had no answer for why the enrollment site debuted with massive flaws on Oct. 1. 

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"Our portion of the application worked as designed," said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president with CGI Federal. "The end-to-end testing was the responsibility of [HHS]."

The hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee underscored the complexity of the task that faced contractors involved with creating ObamaCare's online enrollment system.

HealthCare.gov remains only semifunctional in its fourth week, even as the White House scrambles to get the enrollment portal working as intended.

Though few answers emerged about the recent triage efforts, contractors did shed light Thursday on efforts to pull the system together in the weeks prior to Oct. 1.

According to the witnesses, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was made aware of all the problems encountered with each product in the lead-up to the launch.

One company, Optum's QSSI, said it wished for more time to test the site end-to-end but was provided only a few weeks.

None of the companies represented Thursday suggested delaying the launch to the CMS, witnesses said.

"It is not our position to tell our client to go live or not go live," Campbell said. "I did not have, nor did CGI have an opinion."

Republicans hammered HHS for failing to adequately test the enrollment system.

"I'm very disturbed that CMS did not give you the adequate time that would have been an industry standard for testing," Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told the witnesses.

The hearing raises the stakes for next week, when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner will each testify on the rollout before a House panel.

The contractors said they are confident that the system would be fully functional in time for customers to enroll by Dec. 15, the deadline for obtaining coverage that begins Jan. 1.

"As painful as it sounds, I know that the system is working," said Campbell. "People are enrolling, but people will be able to enroll at a faster pace. Their experience will improve."

Democrats on hand at the hearing took shots at Republicans, accusing them of bad faith in holding the hearing.

One tense moment came when Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), the top Democrat on the panel's Health subcommittee, called the event a "monkey court."

"I wish I could believe that this hearing is above board, but it's not," Pallone said.

"The Republicans don't have clean hands coming here. Their effort is obviously not to make this better, but to use the website glitches as an excuse to defund or repeal ObamaCare," he said.

Democratic lawmakers were particularly defensive about the problems facing HealthCare.gov.

Many used their question time to praise popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act or bring up the recent government shutdown, which dealt a blow to GOP poll numbers.

A second tense moment came when Democrats accused Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) of trying to scare people away from enrolling in the system by raising the possibility of privacy violations.

Barton had argued that one piece of code revealed that the website was not complaint with HIPAA, the 1996 medical privacy law.

Democrats shot back that HIPAA was not relevant because no medical details are required to gain coverage on the new marketplaces.

On the GOP side, a handful of lawmakers accused Democrats of downplaying the enrollment problems out of unquestioning allegiance to ObamaCare.

"These past three weeks of exchange messiness demonstrate that no member of this body should be a blind cheerleader for the Affordable Care Act and ignore the problems before their very eyes," Energy and Commerce Committee vice chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told colleagues.

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