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BusinessTechnology gets Google, Oracle to lend engineers

A screen shows the website being down

A screen shows the website being down during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Oct. 30, 2013) Credit: AP

Google Inc., Red Hat Inc., Oracle Corp. and other technology companies are contributing dozens of computer engineers and programmers to help the Obama administration fix the U.S. health-insurance exchange website.

The help is arriving as the government’s main site for medical coverage remains plagued by repeated outages a month after its Oct. 1 debut. Michael Dickerson, a site reliability engineer on leave from Google, and Greg Gershman, innovation director for smartphone application maker Mobomo, are among those helping, the Obama administration said yesterday.

“They are working through the analytics of what happens on the site to prioritize what needs to be fixed,” Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters on a conference call. Dickerson is working to improve the stability of the website, while Gershman is “helping the development process be more agile.”

The administration began touting a “tech surge” on Oct. 20, to cure the software errors underlying that have hindered people from enrolling in coverage and insurers from collecting data. Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, apologized before Congress two days ago and said her agency has pulled in outside help to achieve “an optimally functioning” exchange by the end of November.

Offering Help

“I know it’s a very political topic,” Oracle Chief Executive Officer Larry Ellison said yesterday at the software maker’s annual meeting. “As an information technology company we are doing everything we can to help.”

Oracle, based in Redwood City, Calif., is the world’s largest database-software maker. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google and Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat declined to comment.

The federal website is the main portal for millions of uninsured people in 36 of the 50 U.S. states to shop for private health insurance plans, with the help of government tax credits, as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. Fourteen states have created their own exchanges.

An estimated 7 million people will gain coverage in 2014 through the federal and state exchanges, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Top Adviser

The administration hasn’t previously quantified the tech surge. Jeffrey Zients, President Barack Obama’s incoming chief economic adviser, was brought in to advise Bataille’s agency, and the project’s management has since been reorganized, with UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s Quality Software Services unit now overseeing the entire operation.

The site previously had no lead contractor. It was largely built by a unit of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc. UnitedHealth’s QSSI built the “data services hub” that collects information about customers from the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies, and feeds it to the federal and state websites.

Dickerson is working with QSSI, while Gershman is working with CGI Group, Bataille said yesterday.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, led by Marilyn Tavenner, had been responsible for building and running the exchange website. She appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee this week and blamed the contractors for the website woes.

Her comments followed a hearing a week prior where units of CGI Group and UnitedHealth said a branch of the health agency was responsible for the end-to-end testing of the site that should have been done months earlier. The government conducted final tests just days before the site went public Oct. 1, while similar projects are tested for months, the contractors said.

Enrollment Deadline

About 8.6 million people visited the federal website in the first week, encountering software flaws and long waits that prevented many from even registering. HHS has said that capacity is being added to the system and multiple upgrades are being made to the software code, though as of two days ago error messages were still being displayed for some users.

Getting the site fixed soon is critical as Americans who don’t have health insurance by March 31 may have to pay a fine of as much as 1 percent of their income. 

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