The Corner

Months Before Launch, Officials Feared Contractors Would ‘Crash Plane at Take-Off’

Months before the October launch of the federal health-insurance exchange, a top U.S. official expressed concern that the primary contractor hired to build the site would “crash the plane at take-off,” according to internal e-mails released by a congressional panel. 

The documents were released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been investigating the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Committee chairman Fred Upton (R, Mich.) has introduced a bill that would allow insurance companies to continue to offer plans that do not meet Obamacare’s minimum standards and allow all Americans to purchase those plans. 

The internal e-mails were exchanged in mid July between top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, including Henry Chao, the administration’s chief technology officer, and contractors building the federal exchange. Chao, in a July 16 e-mail, described ”how low the confidence level” is, his lack of faith in the quality assurances he was receiving from contractors, and concluded, “I just need to feel more confident they are not going to crash the plane at take-off, regardless of price.”

Days later, on July 20, Chao emphasized that both he and CMS chief Marilyn Tavenner had assured Congress the site would be ready for launch on October 1. “I am not sharing this with you because I think it’s entertaining and informative,” he wrote to colleagues. “I am sharing this with you so you can see and hear that both Marilyn and I under oath stated we are going to make October 1.” He continued, “I would like you [to] put yourself in my shoes standing before Congress, which in essence is standing before the American public, and know that you speak the tongue of not necessarily just past truths but the truth that you will make happen.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services moved to blunt criticism that its officials were aware of risks associated with the October 1 launch, saying in a statement, “This e-mail discusses one small piece of ongoing discussions about managing deliverables and communicating expectations that were on a short timeline to meet Oct 1. Management concerns about meeting timelines are expected for any project of this size and scope.”

Despite the administration’s efforts, Healthcare.gov crashed on the day it went live and continues to be plagued with problems. As a result of the technical issues and the plan-cancellation notices millions of Americans have received, the president yesterday announced that insurance companies may continue to offer non-compliant plans through the end of next year. 

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