Google Inc. (GOOG:US), Red Hat Inc. (RHT:US), Oracle Corp. (ORCL:US) and other technology companies are contributing dozens of computer engineers and programmers to help the Obama administration fix the U.S. health-insurance exchange website.
Most importantly, the help is arriving as the government’s main site for medical coverage remains plagued by repeated outages a month after its October 1st debut. Michael Dickerson, site reliability engineer for Google, and Greg Gershman, innovation director for Mobomo, are assisting the Obama administration.
“They are working through the analytics of what happens on the site to prioritize what needs to be fixed,” Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters on a conference call. Dickerson is improving the stability of the website, while Gershman is “helping the development process be more agile.”
The administration began touting a “tech surge” on October 20th. These efforts were to cure the software and technology errors on the federal website "healthcare.gov". These errros have prevented people from enrolling in health plans and insurers from collecting data. Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, apologized yesterday. She stated her agency has pulled in outside help to achieve “an optimally functioning” exchange by the end of November.
Oracle Chief Executive Officer Larry Ellison said at the software maker’s annual meeting “I know it’s a very political topic. As an information technology company we are doing everything we can to help.”
California-based Oracle is the world’s largest database-software maker.
The federal website is the main portal for millions of uninsured people in 36 of the 50 U.S. states. As part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, this helps people shop for private health insurance plans with help from government tax credits. Fourteen states have created their own health insurance websites. An estimated 7 million people will gain coverage in 2014 through the federal and state exchanges, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The administration hasn’t previously quantified the tech surge. Jeffrey Zients, President Obama’s incoming chief economic adviser, was brought in to advise Bataille’s agency. The project’s management has since been reorganized, with UnitedHealth Group Inc (UNH:US)’s Quality Software Services unit now overseeing the entire operation.
The site previously had no lead contractor. A unit of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc built a majority of this site. The UnitedHealth unit, QSSI, built a service called the “data services hub” that collects information about customers from the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies and feeds it to the federal and state websites.
Bataille stated today that Dickerson is working with QSSI, while Gershman is working with CGI Group.
Maryiln Tanner from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has been responsible for building and running the exchange website. She appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee this week and blamed the contractors for the website woes.
These comments were a response to a hearing held a week prior. At this hearing, units of CGI Group and UnitedHealth said a branch of the health agency was responsible for the end-to-end testing of the site that should have been done months earlier. The government conducted final tests just days before the site went public on October 1, while similar projects are tested for months, the contractors said.
About 8.6 million people visited the federal website in the first week, encountering software flaws and long waits that prevented many from even registering. The software has undergone multiple upgrades to accommodate the capacity according to HHS. As a result, error messages were still displaying for some users as of yesterday.
Getting the site fixed soon is critical as Americans who don’t have health insurance by March 31 may have to pay a fine of as much as 1 percent of their income.