Few details, lots of grandstanding at HealthCare.gov Congressional hearing

Not surprisingly, Thursday’s Congressional hearing over the government’s glitchy HealthCare.gov was full of partisan bickering and political theater.  But the four representatives from the companies contracted to build the website did share a wee bit of information about the lead-up to the site’s troubled launch.

All four executives from the government contractors – CGI Federal, Quality Software Services (QSSI), Equifax and Serco – said that after testing their own pieces of the website, they were confident that their components would work as designed on Oct. 1. But each emphasized the responsibility for testing the entire system end-to-end fell to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

They also said that the final rounds of testing didn’t happen until the weeks before the launch of the site on Oct. 1 and said more time would have been helpful.

Asked how much time they would have liked to have had, Andrew Slavitt, an executive vice president at QSSI, said: “Months would be nice.”

Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal, agreed: “We would have like to have months.”

The contractors also said that they did not recommend delaying the launch of the site, as it wasn’t their role to make that decision. But Slavitt said QSSI made the government aware of “their concerns and risks,” although he did not elaborate on what those were.

The contractors repeatedly said that their employees are working to improve the site and that the problems are gradually improving. While they declined to give firm dates for a total fix, they did try to dispel some worst-case scenarios.

In answer to a question about whether they needed to rewrite five million lines of code to make the site fully functional,  Campbell said, “the 300-plus employees I have back at the office, I think they’d walk out if I told them we had to rewrite five million lines of code.”

Republicans remain staunchly opposed to the new health care law and their position was quite evident. At one point, there was a particularly heated exchange between Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) after Barton attempted to raise questions about whether the site was HIPAA compliant. Frustrated with Barton’s questions, Pallone called the whole process a “monkey court.”

Democrats emphasized that the exchanges are still working, pointing to the smooth rollout of exchanges in Connecticut and Oregon and the ability for people to enroll over the phone. But they also grilled the contractors and pushed for answers.

In response to comments that the higher-than-expected traffic led to the site’s failures, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, said, “This is the 21st century, it’s 2013. There are thousands of websites that handle concurrent volumes far larger than HealthCare.gov was faced with … I think that’s really kind of a lame excuse. Amazon* (s AMZN) and eBay (s EBAY) don’t crash a week before Christmas and ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day.”

*(Although… not to pick any nits, but parts of Amazon Web Services have been known to go down at the most inopportune times.)