Blame Canada? A Canadian IT firm, CGI Group Inc., is behind the website that is causing frustration, anger and plenty of headaches for Americans trying to sign up online for a new health insurance plan.
Healthcare.gov is the website launched Oct. 1 that represents the heart and soul of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare. It’s an online marketplace that allows uninsured Americans to shop for and compare plans, buy one, and check if they’re eligible for any government subsidies.
So far, it’s not working very well. From day one, the website has struggled to handle the millions of clicks it’s getting. Users have received error messages, been booted out of the system, or got stuck somewhere along the process trying to create an account and buy a plan.
Government officials have primarily blamed the problems on high traffic, but plenty of technology experts think there are bugs built into the software and design of the site.
Todd Park, Obama’s technology adviser, did acknowledge earlier in the week that software can take some of the blame. The software crashed because of the volume of attempted users but under normal circumstances it would have coped fine, he said.
Lorne Gorber, senior vice-president of global communications and investor relations for CGI, is staying mum on the precise problems. Questions to the company were directed to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the division of the U.S. federal Health Department that is managing the program.
Volume blamed for trouble
“We are really focused, all day, all night, to working with our partners and client to ensure stability and get the enrolment going smoothly,” Gorber said by phone from Montreal, where the global firm is based.
White House press secretary Jay Carney has been fielding questions from the media all week about the rocky start to the health exchanges. He has been vague about what exactly is going wrong. He said the “central problem” is being caused by volume and only hinted at other issues.
“There's no question that there are fixes that are being made and need to be made, because these problems have been exposed and exacerbated by the volume,” he told reporters. "But they’re driven by the volume."
Carney added that these glitches were expected, and the government has been fully transparent that problems were expected given the massive size and complexity of the project.
“As was the case when the new operating system for the Apple iPhone was released, they didn't pull it off the market and nobody called for Apple to stop selling iPhones. They fixed the problem and moved forward — and that's what we're doing.”
Gorber echoed that statement: “For CGI, we are for the moment committed to one thing, and that’s working with the client to make the tweaks, and improvements that are par for the course with this type of project,” he said.
Canadian government a client
CGI, the world’s fifth-largest IT firm, is the primary contractor involved in the health insurance exchanges. Other companies are handling smaller parts of the system. The main website is handling the exchanges for 36 states.
The Canadian company’s subsidiary, CGI Federal Inc., was awarded the $93-million contract for the Affordable Care Act project in 2011.
It’s not the first time CGI has done work for the U.S. government. The relationship goes back decades, and Washington is one of the company’s biggest customers.
Multiple contracts help bring in between $3 billion and $4 billion a year for the Canadian firm, which operates in 40 countries. The U.S. State Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defence are among CGI's other clients in addition to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Canadian federal government is also a client, along with big Canadian companies including Bell Canada, Bombardier, Cirque du Soleil and TD Bank.