Both Democrats and Republicans showed little patience for the persistent problems on HealthCare.gov on Thursday as they questioned the contractors who helped build the dysfunctional Obamacare site.
"The website should've been the easy part," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at the opening of a hearing in his committee. "I'm also concerned about what happens next? Will enrollment glitches become provider payment glitches? Will patients show up at their doctor's office or hospital only to be told that they aren't covered?"
The private contractors at the hearing confirmed to the committee that when the federal website was tested just days before its Oct. 1 launch, it crashed after just a few hundred people logged on. However, they said the decision to launch the site anyway rested solely with the the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, acknowledged that the enrollment function her company helped build was overwhelmed by users when HealthCare.gov first launched. She insisted that the tool worked well when CGI tested it but that CGI was not responsible for the "end-to-end" testing necessary to ensure it worked with all elements of the site. That responsibility, she said, fell on CMS.
Both Democrats and Republicans were skeptical about the explanations the contractors gave for the site's many problems.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, said it was a "lame excuse" to blame the website's problems on too many visitors -- it was an excuse, she said, "that really sticks in my craw."
"Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas," Eshoo said.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., complained that there are still reports of "significant problems" with the site, more than three weeks after its launch. "These problems need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed fast," she said.
While Democrats acknowledged the website's problems, some of them suggested that the Republican-led committee convened Thursday's hearing for partisan purposes.
"Here we go again, another cynical effort to delay, defund or repeal" the health care law, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said. "I'd like to think this hearing is above board or legitimate, but it's not."
Pallone later called the hearing a "monkey trial" and accused Republicans of exaggerating the problems with the site in order to scare people out of taking advantage of the new access to insurance the Affordable Care Act offers.
Referring to the health care law, Pallone said Congress needs to "fix it, not nix it" -- a slogan two other Democrats used during the hearing.
Campbell assured the committee that CGI is "seeing improvements day over day" and promised that the enrollment process would be much improved by Dec. 15 -- the date by which consumers would need to enroll in order to have insurance coverage at the start of 2014.
Andrew Slavitt of QSSI said his company was responsible for a tool used in the HealthCare.gov's registration process and acknowledged that it wasn't running smoothly when the site launched.
"We absolutely take accountability for those first days," he said, adding later that the tool is "capable of now handling all the demands placed on it."
Both Campbell and Slavitt said that CMS only conducted end-to-end testing in the days and weeks leading up to launch but that testing should have been conducted months prior. DeGette pointed out that CGI and QSSI said nothing about this concern when they testified before the Energy and Commerce Committee in early September.
While they blamed CMS for insufficient testing, Campbell of CGI said the Obama administration didn't try to influence the site's construction for political reasons. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.,there was political influence, citing a briefing that CGI gave the House Oversight Committee in which they repeatedly referred to "what the White House wants."
Campbell said of her colleagues' statements to the Oversight Committee staff, "I think they may have been taken out of context... To my knowledge, the White House has not given us direct instructions."
The Energy and Commerce Committee next week have a chance to question members of the administration, including HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In the meantime, 32 House Republicans are calling for Sebelius' resignation.
"By calling for the resignation of Secretary Sebelius, you can send a powerful signal that the American people will not be held responsible for her department's failures," the Republicans said in a letter sent Wednesday to President Obama.
Meanwhile, the administration announced Wednesday evening that they'llnext year to purchase insurance before they'll be penalized. The adjustment was made in order to , which lasts through March 31.