HHS advisor: HealthCare.gov fixable but will take much work

Fix this! Acting Budget Director Jeffrey Zients, now HealthCare.gov performance advisor and troubleshooter (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Fix this! Acting Budget Director Jeffrey Zients, now HealthCare.gov performance advisor and troubleshooter (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

HealthCare.gov is “fixable,” but fixing it will take a lot of work, says management impresario Jeff Zients.

Zients has come on board at the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department to help advise on the botched exchange enrollment rollout. 

Zients, a former CEO and chairman of two publicly traded companies, is also acting director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the nation’s first chief performance officer.

He told reporters during a press conference today that the HealthCare.gov system has been reviewed, and that the problems are unacceptable, but that the enrollment process will be largely on track by the end of November. 

“We have a punch list of fixes, and we are going to punch them out one by one,” Zients said.  

He declined to give any numbers on enrollment projections, volume, completed applications or any other metrics for now, but he said that, for the “vast majority of users,” HealthCare.gov would work smoothly by the end of November. He also noted that of all applications, more than half have come through the federal marketplace, not the state-based exchanges.

Dec. 15 is the deadline for enrollment if one wants coverage beginning Jan. 1, although open enrollment has been extended through the end of March.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has hired Maryland-based Quality Software Services, Inc (QSSI) to act as general manager for the exchanges through HealthCare.gov, Zients announced today.

QSSI, a unit of UnitedHealth Group, will work from an existing contract that is being modified for the expansion of its duties.

QSII is one of the top contractors already awarded projects by CMS and HHS for the exchange buildout, specifically the federal data services hub. Its performance was questioned Thursday during a critical House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing, along with other technology contractors who formerly told Congress that computer systems for the enrollment beginning Oct. 1 were on track.

Untold numbers of error messages and problems have been reported, with only three in 10 applications started actually reaching completion. Even Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who himself needs coverage beginning Jan. 1 when his policy lapses, is still getting error messages, he announced at the hearing yesterday.

CMS declined to give the cost of the enhanced QSSI contract. Zients’ team identified two prongs of issues: performance problems, chiefly response time and reliability of the exchange enrollment process, and function problems, namely bugs in the software.

“We are executing a plan of attack and the system is getting better,” he said. "And it will continue to improve each week."

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