Less than four weeks before the launch of 2015 open enrollment for Obamacare, the government agency that runs Healthcare.gov suddenly realized the Marketplace site was heading for a repeat of last year's debacle. Documents show that on October 19, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of Health and Human Services (HHS), learned that a shortage of computer storage would "cause long outages and slow response times" leading to "a poor user experience." An emergency, no-bid contract for $1.8 million was quickly awarded to Terremark (a subsidiary of Verizon) for 100 terabytes of additional storage plus various computer licenses.
Since the order was needed in such a hurry, the government decided to skip the usual bidding process mandated for such a contract, a practice that has not been uncommon in the development of Healthcare.gov to date. The Limited Source Justification that was required and subsequently approved internally at CMS spelled out the consequences of delay in stark terms:
The documents do not disclose how long installation and configuration of the new equipment would take. However, shortly after the problem was discovered on October 19, Healthcare.gov was shutdown for "weekend maintenance" on a Wednesday, October 22. It remains unclear if this shutdown was related to the inadequacies CMS discovered, and CMS did not return an email at the time requesting comment.
Terremark/Verizon is actually the outgoing contractor for Healthcare.gov. The government announced in June 2013 that Hewlett-Packard would be replacing Terremark/Verizon. However, launch problems and other delays led to numerous extensions on the Terremark/Verizon contract. Most recently, as THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported in September, CMS disclosed that the Terremark/Verizon system would continue to host Healthcare.gov through 2015 open enrollment with the new Hewlett-Packard system acting only as backup and as a "development environment".
By most accounts, the current open enrollment period is proceeding with few of the problems experienced in the fall of 2013. CMS has undergone some reorganization in the past year, but at least some of the steps spelled out by former HHS director Kathleen Sebelius are still unfulfilled. In a December 2013 press appearance, Sebelius announced her intention to create a Chief Risk Officer position at CMS to, in part, oversee future IT (information technology) planning and purchases such as the one described above and prevent unpleasant surprises. However, the position is still vacant and both CMS and HHS have disregarded numerous inquiries about the status of Sebelius's commitment.
Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.