WASHINGTON – Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administrations showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed.
Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.
As questions mount over the websites failure, insider interviews and a review of technical specifications by The Associated Press found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers who pushed out a final product that congressional investigators said was tested by the government and not private developers with more expertise.
The details about problems with the websites design emerged as the White House revealed that President Barack Obamas longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients is being brought in to provide management advice to help fix the system.
White House press secretary Jay Carney says Zients will be on a short-term assignment at the Health and Human Services Department before hes due to take over as director of Obamas National Economic Council Jan. 1.
Carney cited Zeints expertise as a longtime management consultant and his proven track record since coming to the White House in 2009, both as interim budget director and as chief performance officer, when he headed an effort to streamline government and cut costs.
Were engaged in an all-out effort to improve the online experience, Carney said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a post on HealthCare.gov that her agency is also bringing in more experts and specialists from government and industry, including top Silicon Valley companies.
Project developers for the health care website who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity – because they feared they would otherwise be fired – said they raised doubts among themselves whether the website could be ready in time. They complained openly to each other about what they considered tight and unrealistic deadlines. One was nearly brought to tears over the stress of finishing on time, one developer said. Website builders saw red flags for months.
A review of internal architectural diagrams obtained by the AP revealed the systems complexity.
Insurance applicants have a host of personal information verified, including income and immigration status. The system connects to other federal computer networks, including ones at the Social Security Administration, IRS, Veterans Administration, Office of Personnel Management and the Peace Corps.
Just weeks before the launch of HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1, one programmer said, colleagues huddled in conference rooms trying to patch bugs, or deficiencies in computer code. Unresolved problems led to visitors experiencing cryptic error messages or enduring long waits trying to sign up.
The government spent at least $394 million in contracts to build the federal health care exchange and the data hub.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee was expected to conduct an oversight hearing Thursday, probably without Sebelius testifying. She could testify on Capitol Hill on the subject as early as next week.