Why the Affordable Care Act website failed so badly

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The launch of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance exchange website, healthcare.gov, illustrates many of the problems that can happen when the government is not held accountable.  Like most government projects, it was delivered late and over budget.  If those were the only problems it had it probably would have never been newsworthy.  Unfortunately, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

More on government accountability:

Destined to fail

October 1, 2013 marked quite a memorable event in U.S. history.  After months of delay, excited citizens flocked to sign up for affordable healthcare insurance online.  Unfortunately, they were blocked right after logging into their federal government’s official website because it crashed the first day it was launched.  This strange occurrence spawned an epic convergence of vicious attacks and brutal criticism that led to viral backlash against the Obama Administration.  Various theories and pure speculation soon emerged about the true cause of the virtual platform’s phenomenal failing.  Information since published by federal government agencies and other credible sources have revealed why the launch of healthcare.gov went so badly.

According to the U.S. Inspector General’s (USIG) office, problems began long before the debut of healthcare.gov on the first day of October in 2013.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that was tasked with the duty to administer the ACA program reportedly hired private contractors to build the site.  Unfortunately, the federal employees that were given project management responsibilities for the website failed to oversee the contractors properly.  Per the USIG report, CMS delegated in-house staffers who were poorly trained and thus maintained poor supervision over the private contractors’ spending and progress on healthcare.gov projects.

One such instance mentioned five different employees assigned to the same private contract over a five-year period with no head manager ever appointed by name.  Other cases cited workers with no relevant expertise or training appointed as lead managers over contractors.

President Obama made the decision to hand responsibility for the implementation of the healthcare.gov website over to CMS.  Of course, CMS had no technical employees so they hired two different companies as contractors to implement the website.  Unfortunately, CMS also had no employees with any project management skills so they did not manage the contractors effectively.  And then you have the contractors who had no clear specifications, requirements, and management from CMS so they gladly took money from the government and did the bare minimum.

Who was responsible?

The situation illustrates exactly what is wrong with the government.  It shows clearly how no one is held accountable.  The contractors didn’t care because they were getting paid.  Anyone that works with contractors knows they will do exactly what they are told to do and nothing more.  The employees at CMS didn’t care because they felt the contractors were getting paid to do the job.  The management at CMS didn’t care because they also felt the contractors were doing the work.  But the worst part is that the management at CMS did not feel any pressure from President Obama.

President Obama did not put any priority on the implementation of the healthcare.gov website that was part of his signature legislative achievement.  The ACA was passed in 2010 and healthcare.gov launched in 2013.  Obama had three years to design, implement and test the healthcare.gov website.  After looking into who was responsible for the healthcare.gov disaster it is clear that Obama did not make the website a high priority until after all the problems were revealed.

You would think that Obama would have put one of his most trusted people in charge of making sure the website was being implemented on time.  At the very least you would think he would have a good project manager in charge of the project.  But, it’s clear he didn’t do either of those things.  The only possible conclusion is that he simply didn’t care about the implementation of the healthcare.gov website.

Cost to taxpayers

All these inept mismanagement efforts caused millions of dollars in cost overruns.  Depending on specific budgetary expense items factored into differing equations, total cost estimates range from $840 million to well over $2 billion for 8 private firms that were awarded 20 essential healthcare.gov contracts.  Those figures were published by various sources between July and September of 2014.

The worst part was that the initial launch was late and way over budget and didn’t work at all.  Only when there was a public uproar did the government finally act.  Unfortunately, the government reaction to the uproar was to spend more taxpayer money!  They scrambled to find a bunch more contractors and started paying them overtime to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.  So when the government messes up they simply spend even more taxpayer money.

Who was held accountable?

The contractors can’t be held responsible.  They were just doing their jobs and doing what the government told them.  The people that are most responsible for the failure of the website are the CMS employees, their management, and President Obama.

Amazingly, only one person was ultimately held responsible for the disastrous failure of the healthcare.gov website and that was the head of the Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius.  She resigned in April 2014 which is as close as you can get to being fired in the government.  Clearly she was required to take the blame for the debacle. So at the end of the day, when the government makes a huge mistake, taxpayers have to pay a lot more money and one person loses their job.  This is why it’s critical to demand that elected officials be held accountable for their actions.