Will a Shake-up at the Top Give the Obamacare Website a Much-Needed Boost?


It's been a little more than five weeks since the live launch of Obamacare's health insurance exchanges, and, speaking for the majority of folks who've attempted to navigate the glitch-filled federal website, it's been a nightmare.

Internal memos released to date show that a meager 248 people were able to complete full enrollment in an insurance plan during the first two days of the federally managed Healthcare.gov's operation. State-run health exchanges have certainly fared better, which would be expected with numerous contractors being targeted to build those systems and personalized attention given to each state's varying problems.

Who's to blame?
The real focus has turned to what should be done to fix the plague-filled Healthcare.gov, which services 36 states, and who's to blame for not getting things right in the first place.

Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. Source: Center for American Progress Action Fund on Flickr.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has taken a lot of heat for her role in the rollout of the website. Although we've heard plenty of political banter from both sides, the potential that regulators knew well in advance that the website wasn't properly tested to handle the influx of traffic that was expected when it launched has people fairly upset. As she's the head of the agency ultimately in charge of the program, that frustration is landing heavily on Sebelius, who's been testifying over the past week about what she knew then and what she knows now.

The finger-pointing is not stopping at Sebelius. Yesterday, per The New York Times, the Obama administration announced that the chief information officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Tony Trenkle, would retire from his post on Nov. 15 to take a position in the private sector. Trenkle's CMS division was an overseer to the development of Healthcare.gov, and his departure appears to mark the beginning of a shake-up of top officials linked to the failed website launch.

This won't solve the problem
The big question then becomes: Could a shake-up at HHS and CMS improve confidence in Obamacare's website and finally make clear who's really to blame for this mess?

Personally, I'm not inclined to believe so. I continue to feel that the onus of blame -- but also the possibility of redemption -- lies solely with the contractors and subcontractors who developed Healthcare.gov and not with the officials who seem to be at the center of this debacle.

Front and center is CGI Group which was the lead architect behind Healthcare.gov. CGI has certainly been raked over the coals since Oct. 1 for a number of reasons, outside of simply being the primary developer of a site that has failed to live up to expectations. The Canadian company has been criticized for being chosen as the head contractor even though eHealth canceled its contractual agreement with CGI Group in September 2012 to develop a diabetes registry in Ontario for purportedly failing to meet multiple deadlines. CGI has blamed Health and Human Services officials for not properly testing the Obamacare website prior to its launch, but that lower the company's responsibility for the situation. As I've stated previously, CGI has the tools and certainly the teamwork to fix these issues, but the PR damage may be done with regard to future orders received.

UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum, which owns Quality Software Services, or QSSI, is also receiving its share of blame. The company was an intermediary party whose software was used to verify that health care plans met the stringent requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Optum Group Executive Vice President Andrew Slavitt testified that its Data Services Hub was functioning properly upon launch of Healthcare.gov, but encountered issues because it had to interface with connections from multiple other contractors. UnitedHealth Group is large enough that it won't see much of a share price bump in either direction from QSSI's involvement, but as witth CGI Group the situation has the potential to stymie future orders.

Coming to the rescue
While the launch of Healthcare.gov hasn't gone as planned for CGI Group and UnitedHealth Group's QSSI, the opportunity to fix the laundry list of problems by the end of November -- the established time until the majority of people will be able to use the website with ease, according to Jeffrey Zients, the former acting Office of Management and Budget chief who has been called on to fix the Healthcare.gov mess -- could be a redeeming factor for both companies.

In addition to CGI and UnitedHealth Group, a trio of tech behemoths has stepped up to the challenge of helping navigate through Healthcare.gov's woes.

Although CGI Group clearly knows the ins and outs of its website architecture best, officials have asked Oracle , Red Hat , and Google to help diagnose and suggest fixes.

Both Oracle and Red Hat are masters of middleware, which ultimately involves managing data between multiple software applications and servers and the end user, or the health insurance consumer in this case. Obviously, the federal exchange has a problem between getting the information from the user, through the identification process, and into insurers' hands. Oracle and Red Hat should be able to use their expertise to hone in on these problems and supply a series of fixes.

Google has had incredible success in building a global network that's both secure and practically without flaws. The thought here for Health and Human Services is to bring in a company that can apply that source-code know-how to Healthcare.gov's fix.

The waiting game
The truth, of course, is that we still don't know if the Obamacare website will be fixed by the end of November, or if the deadline will pass without an adequate solution. One thing I would contend, though, is that changing the top officials in charge of Healthcare.gov isn't going to fix the problem any quicker. Despite the urge to point your finger at Sebelius or a number of other officials, the ultimate responsibility of the website lies with the software architects that built it. This is their moment to shine or go down fighting.

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The article Will a Shake-up at the Top Give the Obamacare Website a Much-Needed Boost? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of, and recommends Google. It also owns shares of Oracle and recommends UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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