During today's congressional hearing on the Healthcare.gov rollout, contractors brought up a new government official to blame for the sites struggle debut: Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer of the Department of Health and Human Services. And somewhere out there Kathleen Sebelius breathed a sigh of relief.
The finger pointing all hinges on the decision to delay the site's window shopping tool, which would have allowed users to browse the plans available to them, with the price adjusted to their location and income level, without registering an account. (Though Healthcare.gov now has a window shopping tool it's very basic and sometimes underestimates premium costs by up to 50 percent.) At some point administration officials decided to delay the original feature, and as Sarah Kliff at The Washington Post noted, both CGI Federal and Quality Software Services Inc. threw Chao under the bus for the delay. "I believe it was Henry Chao and members of his team," were the exact words CGI Federal's Cheryl R. Campbell used when asked who made the decision to delay.
There are a number of reasons why the administration chose to delay that feature, depending on who you ask. "Obviously, as we got closer to October 1, we needed to prioritize items for launch and go live so consumers could conduct a full application process," Julie Bataille, a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman, said today. "We made a business decision to prioritize resources so that functionality would be ready for consumers," she added. A spokesperson for Health and Human Services told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that officials decided not to include the browsing tool to make sure users saw their subsidy eligibility along with their insurance prices. Or, put another way, the administration didn't want to scare people off with the pre-subsidy prices.
Whatever the reason — technical or strategic — for the delay, the bottleneck caused by users creating accounts is considered to be one of the major problems affecting the federal exchange. State-run exchanges that allow users to browse then window shop have faired much better. Pinning that decision on one individual is a good way to hide the fact that contractor created software doesn't work.
Until this point, Chao has more or less stayed out of the line of fire. His most memorable moment this month was his "let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience" quote in the damning New York Times piece on the bureaucracy and politics that crippled the rollout. And now contractors are subtly trying to pin that "third-world" experience on Chao.
(Henry Chao photo via Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.)