By Dow Jones Business News, October 25, 2013, 01:45:00 PM EDT
White House Sets Late-November Target to Fix Health Site
WASHINGTON--The Obama administration said Friday it has named a unit of UnitedHealth Group Inc. ( UNH ) to oversee
repairs to its troubled health-insurance website and for the first time gave a specific estimate--the end of November--
for when the site would be fixed.
The move followed a congressional hearing Thursday at which contractors for the site said each of their individual
parts functioned but no one in the government made sure all of them worked together properly. The federal Centers for
Medicare and Medicaid Services acted as its own systems integrator for the site--an unusual arrangement for such a
The administration is under pressure to get the site fixed quickly. The 2010 Affordable Care Act sets penalties for
those who fail to carry coverage in 2014, and critics say it isn't fair to punish people who can't use a balky website.
Ten Democrats on Friday sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Friday saying she should
consider extending the current March 31, 2014, deadline by which people must enroll or pay a penalty.
A spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the government has tapped Quality Software
Services, Inc. or QSSI, a unit of UnitedHealth's Optum, to act as the general contractor for what officials have
described as a "tech surge" to fix the site. The government said an existing contract with QSSI was being renegotiated
but didn't say how much it would pay for the new service.
Jeffrey Zients, a veteran Obama administration trouble-shooter, was tapped this week to oversee a team of tech experts
and assess the problems with the HealthCare.gov website.
He offered an initial assessment Friday. "It will take a lot of work and there are a number of problems that need to
be addressed, but let me be clear, HealthCare.gov is fixable," Mr. Zients said in a conference call with reporters. He
said he's confident the site will be running smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November.
The Democratic senators said in their letter that their constituents were frustrated with the technology problems and
might need more time to enroll in coverage. Mr. Zients conceded that problems with the website's speed and functioning
remain. He said the site "will get faster and have fewer bugs each week."
Although insurance companies have reported problems with information they are getting on forms from people trying to
enroll on HealthCare.gov, they are urging the Obama administration to stick with current rules requiring people to
"You have to have that to make this thing work. Otherwise people will wait to buy coverage until they are sick," said
Alissa Fox, a senior vice president for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. Insurance companies said premiums
for 2014 were based on the assumption that both healthy and sick people would sign up for coverage--an assumption that
might be jeopardized if website problems deterred healthy people from enrolling.
QSSI has already been working on HealthCare.gov but in more limited roles. It created a data hub that collects
information from various federal agencies to allow the system to decide if an applicant qualifies for a federal subsidy.
Based in Maryland and founded in 1997, QSSI was purchased by UnitedHealth's Optum unit in September 2012. In
congressional testimony Thursday, an Optum executive vice president said the company has received contracts totaling
about $85 million for the data hub and other services, but didn't say how much of that has been paid so far.
HealthCare.gov serves people in 36 states that declined to run their own health-insurance exchanges. Fourteen states
and the District of Columbia are running their own state-based health insurance websites, and those have generally
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