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Obamacare web programmers shed light on site failings

WASHINGTON – Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration’s showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.

As questions mount over the website’s failure, insider interviews and a review of technical specifications by The Associated Press found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers who pushed out a final product that congressional investigators said was tested by the government and not private developers with more expertise.

Meanwhile, the White House said that President Barack Obama’s longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients will provide management advice to help fix the system. White House press secretary Jay Carney says Zients will be on a short-term assignment at the Health and Human Services Department before he’s due to take over as director of Obama’s National Economic Council Jan. 1.

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Carney cited Zients’ expertise as a longtime management consultant and his “proven track record” since coming to the White House in 2009, both as interim budget director and as chief performance officer, when he headed an effort to streamline government and cut costs. “We’re engaged in an all-out effort to improve the online experience,” Carney said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a post on HealthCare.gov that her agency is also bringing in more experts and specialists from government and industry, including top Silicon Valley companies.

“This new infusion of talent will bring a powerful array of subject matter expertise and skills, including extensive experience scaling major IT systems,” she said. “This effort is being marshalled as part of a cross-functional team that is working aggressively to diagnose parts of HealthCare.gov that are experiencing problems, learn from successful states, prioritize issues, and fix them.”

Project developers for the health care website who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity – because they feared they would otherwise be fired – said they raised doubts among themselves whether the website could be ready in time. They complained openly to each other about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines. One was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time, one developer said. Website builders saw red flags for months.

Obama on Monday acknowledged technical problems that he described as “kinks in the system.” But in remarks at a Rose Garden event, Obama offered no explanation for the failure except to note that high traffic to the website caused some of the slowdowns. He said it had been visited nearly 20 million times – fewer monthly visits so far than many commercial websites, such as PayPal, AOL, Wikipedia or Pinterest.

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“The problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody,” Obama said. “There’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.”

Watch: Obama comments on healthcare website problems

Congressional investigators have concluded that the government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, not private software developers, tested the exchange’s computer systems during the final weeks. That task, known as integration testing, is usually handled by software companies because it ferrets out problems before the public sees the final product.

The government spent at least $394 million in contracts to build the federal health care exchange and the data hub.

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Administration officials so far have refused to say how many people actually have managed to enrol in insurance during the three weeks since the new marketplaces became available. Without enrolment numbers, it’s impossible to know whether the program is on track to reach projections from the Congressional Budget Office that 7 million people would gain coverage during the first year the exchanges were available.

Instead, officials have selectively cited figures that put the insurance exchanges in a positive light. They say more than 19 million people have logged on to the federal website and nearly 500,000 have filled out applications for insurance through both the federal and state-run sites.

The flood of computer problems since the website went online has been deeply embarrassing for the White House. The snags have called into question whether the administration is capable of implementing the complex policy and why senior administration officials – including the president – appear to have been unaware of the scope of the problems when the exchange sites opened.

Even as the president spoke at the Rose Garden, more problems were coming to light. The administration acknowledged that a planned upgrade to the website had been postponed indefinitely and that online Spanish-language signups would remain unavailable, despite a promise to Hispanic groups that the capability would start this week. And the government tweaked the website’s home page so visitors can now view phone numbers to apply the old-fashioned way or window-shop for insurance rates without registering first.

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The House Energy and Commerce Committee was expected to conduct an oversight hearing Thursday, probably without Sebelius testifying. She could testify on Capitol Hill on the subject as early as next week.

Uninsured Americans have until about mid-February to sign up for coverage if they are to meet the law’s requirement that they be insured by the end of March. If they don’t, they will face a penalty. The administration says it’s working to address the timing issue to provide more flexibility.

Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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