NYT Downplays Own Reporting That Obamacare ‘Tech Surge’ Was Only About Six People

Talk about burying the lede. Deep within a 5,000-word story published today in the New York Times about the Obamacare website launch is the very damaging disclosure that the much-vaunted “tech surge” promised by the president in late October was mostly just a publicity stunt. In truth, the number of people brought in to work on the project was no more than “about a half-dozen.”

Not only that, despite the Obama Administration’s claims that it met its November 30 deadline to have things fully operational, it turns out that much of the software code that operates away from website users and passes their information along to insurance companies has not even been written.

That might explain why on Monday that the White House refused to say how many people had actually been able to sign up and enroll in an insurance plan although it did tout repeatedly that 375,000 people had visited the Healthcare.gov website before noon Eastern Time on Monday.

Here is the discussion from Times reporters Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Michael Shear about the “tech surge” that wasn’t:

The week QSSI took over [at the behest of administration official Jeffrey Zients], HealthCare.gov — a site Mr. Obama once promised would be as easy to shop on as Amazon.com — went dark for 10 to 12 hours, unheard of in the online business world. But the bigger problem was organizational.

“People looked like they were busy,” said Andrew Slavitt, group executive vice president for QSSI and its parent company, Optum, “but it was hard to tell what they were working on and how it fit in.”

But while the contractors were grateful to Mr. Zients for helping to create order, they saw the administration’s “tech surge” — announced by Mr. Obama in the Rose Garden a few days before QSSI took over — as mostly an exercise in public relations.

The announcement conjured images of an army of software engineers descending on the project. In fact, the surge centered on about a half-dozen people who had taken leave from various technology companies to join the effort. They included Michael Dickerson, a site reliability engineer at Google who had also worked on Mr. Obama’s campaign and now draws praise from contractors as someone who is “actually making a difference,” one said.

Even further on is a sole sentence that describes the almost non-existent backend of the website: “At the outset, the team had made what officials call a very intentional decision to focus their repair effort on making HealthCare.gov work better for consumers. That has meant putting off some ‘back-end’ fixes for insurers, who use the site to receive applications and bill the government for subsidy payments.”

The problem is a pretty extensive one as Sam Baker at National Journal reported in a more extensive item:

Important pieces of the Obamacare site are still glitchy, or missing altogether. And the site’s botched rollout is hardly boosting confidence in the vital components that still need to be built, including the systems for processing payments to insurers and squaring away the details of who has enrolled in which plans.

Both systems are crucial to the insurance industry, which needs to collect premiums so it can pay out claims. And carriers are still waiting for the delayed process of reconciling their enrollment information with the federal government’s data. As the rest of HealthCare.gov struggles to get off the ground, people in and near the insurance industry are nervous about the delays and about how well those systems will work once they’re in place.

“They don’t have a very good track record of building and testing systems, given what we’ve seen so far, so that is cause for concern,” an industry official said.

Another cause for insurers’ anxiety: CGI Federal—the contractor that has come under fire for its work building the bulk of HealthCare.gov—is also in charge of building the payment and reconciliation systems.

Reconciliation is the process by which insurance companies and the federally run insurance exchange iron out any discrepancies in enrollment information—making sure, for example, that the same person isn’t accidentally enrolled in two policies, and that the consumer and the insurance company got the same information about the size of any subsidies.

Consumers have to pay their first month’s premium by the end of December for their coverage to take effect on Jan. 1. And to make sure that the right people are paying the right amount for the right policy, insurers and the government need to reconcile their information. The process was supposed to start this month, but insurers are now skeptical that will happen. And they haven’t gotten word of any backup plan.

Given the proclivities of the national media, one cannot help but wonder how widespread this information will be propagated on the broadcast evening news shows or the homepages of major websites like CNN or Yahoo, the places where most people get their political information.

While the front-end of the exchange website appears to be mostly working, it is simply not true to characterization as a "deadline met" as CNN called it yesterday.

While the problems with Healthcare.gov are likely to be fixed at some point in the future, it is unclear now when that will be. It could take months to get things fully operational which would mean that there will likely be plenty of citizens who will have to pay a penalty for not carrying insurance even if they had actually signed up on an exchange website.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013