The Department of Health and Human Services will review the performance of the contractors hired to build the foundering HealthCare.gov website that has failed to keep up with demand in helping people sign up for health insurance, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday.
During a visit to a community health center in Austin, Sebelius said the top priority was to get the site working. She said the department would begin a review right away.
"We will be looking at all the contract specs, looking at what was required, where steps were missed along the way, and we want to make sure the taxpayers get their money's worth," Sebelius said. "So for money that was spent, we will make sure people are accountable, but the most important thing right now is getting the website up and running as fast as possible."
Several of those government contractors told Congress Thursday that the site's crippling problems trace back to insufficient testing and changes that government officials made just before the website went live on Oct. 1. After more than four hours of testimony, the contractors had only partial answers.
Sebelius said her agency tested the site using five times the maximum traffic ever experienced by Medicare.gov, a similar site. But she said that was a gross underestimate of the demand placed on HealthCare.gov. She also said the high volume not only contributed to its failure, but also exposed other problems.
"In an ideal world there would have been a lot more testing, but we did not have the luxury of that. And the law said the go-time was Oct. 1," she said. "And frankly, a political atmosphere where the majority party, at least in the House, was determined to stop this anyway they possibly could ... was not an ideal atmosphere."
The federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services took the lead developing the site. But on Friday, President Barack Obama's administration named one of the website's subcontractors -- QSSI, Inc. -- as the new general contractor with overall responsibility for fixing it. QSSI built a component of the website, called the data hub, that is working relatively well.
Republicans who have been trying to quash the program for three years expressed outrage that it was being poorly carried out. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said citizens want accountability.
"If she hasn't come ready to answer questions about why hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on a botched product, she might as well not visit," he said in a statement.
Sebelius met with two people Friday who said they had successfully enrolled in health insurance policies using the website. Both said they spent weeks trying to sign up but were eventually happy with the results.
"I tried every day, from the very first day," said Kat Richards, a 24-year-old graphic designer. "Eventually what worked was creating a new account, and then everything worked fine."
Richards said she signed up for the lowest-cost plan.
Sebelius visited Texas because it has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation, with more than 23 percent of residents having no coverage. As the second most-populous state, Gov. Rick Perry's decision not to expand Medicaid to enroll more of the working poor will significantly inhibit the federal law's success in reducing the number of insured in the country.
"We hope that the decision on Medicaid will continue to be actively discussed in the Legislature," she said.
Perry has called the entire Medicaid system broken and has called for abolishing it to allow states to develop their own health care programs for the poor.