The website at the heart of Obamacare, healthcare.gov, was doomed to crash before it even opened for business, but the top federal technology officers working on it were not willing to break the bad news to the White House before the site's Oct. 1 launch.
That's the impression a group of government administrators left Wednesday on a House committee conducting the sixth oversight hearing into the failed rollout of the new health care law.
Department of Health and Human Services administrators told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the new website is now capable of handling up to 25,000 visitors, an improvement over the start but only half of what it was expected to accommodate.
The administrators did not promise lawmakers that they could complete the fix on the website by the Nov. 30 deadline set by President Obama. They would not even guarantee that the system has been tested for all security vulnerabilities and were just as noncommittal about what responsibility they had to warn the White House about the problems.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., pressed the administrators, including Henry Chao, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, about whether they had at least briefed White House officials about the website's problems before its launch.
"No, not directly about the website," Chao told Lummis.
Lummis pressed. "Mr. Baitman, did you?"
"I did not," Baitman responded.
Administrators insisted that it was not their responsibility to tell the president. They said they didn't have the power to delay the Oct. 1 launch even if they realized there were problems with the site, including whether it was adequately secured to protect personal information.
"This, to me, seems to be the billion-dollar question," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said. "Why didn't you delay this? You guys knew there were going to be problems. Mr. Chao, why wasn't it delayed?"
"That's not my decision to make," Chao said. His only orders were to have the site up and running by Oct. 1, Chao said, admitting he never questioned why the administration was insisting on the Oct. 1 deadline.
The administrators also declined to grade the rollout when asked by committee Republicans.
Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chastised their performance.
"Nobody said, 'I should have pulled the stop button,' " Issa told the administrators. "This was a fail. Every one of you should have been close enough to know there was something wrong, to ask somebody in one of those many meetings, 'Are we sure this is going to work?' and at least get an assurance from somebody that it would."