Bloomberg News

Obama Asks Zients to Help Repair Health Exchange Websites

October 22, 2013

National Economic Council Nominee Jeffrey Zients

Nominee for director of the National Economic Council Jeffrey Zients has served as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, and was the agency’s deputy director and its chief performance officer. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama has drafted his soon-to-be top economic adviser, Jeffrey Zients, to help fix the flawed online U.S. health insurance marketplace.

Zients, 46, now a health-care entrepreneur, was named in September to replace Gene Sperling as director of the National Economic Council starting in January. He is advising officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on a short-term basis, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said today. The move puts a long-time Obama adviser and management consultant at the center of efforts to fix the site as the White House grapples with the political fallout.

The exchange, plagued by technical issues since it opened Oct. 1, is designed to sell insurance to millions of Americans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. Zients is part of a “tech surge” announced by the administration on Oct. 20 that also includes Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

“I want the cash registers to work, I want the checkout lines to be smooth,” Obama said in a speech yesterday, explaining why the administration was bringing in consultants to help on the site. The extra help, he said, would include “experts from America’s top private-sector tech companies.”

House Hearings

The inclusion of the men in the repair effort comes as the contractors involved in building the site are preparing to be grilled by Republican opponents to Obamacare during hearing scheduled for Oct. 24. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has made few public comments about the site’s problems since it opened, is set to go before a House panel probing the website’s performance on Oct. 30.

In addition to Zients, the HHS has brought in experts and specialists from within the government, its contractors and the industry who have extensive experience with major information technology systems, Sebelius said in a blog post today.

Almost 20 million people have visited the website, Obama said yesterday. The government has said it won’t disclose how many people have enrolled in health plans through the exchange until mid-November, and then monthly thereafter.

Zients has served as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, and was the agency’s deputy director and its chief performance officer. Most recently, Zients has been managing partner of Portfolio Logic Management LLC, a Washington-based investment firm specializing in health-care services and business services companies.

Park is a co-founder of Castlight Health Inc., a closely held online health-care shopping site for consumers.

Testing Failure

In the weeks before the start of Obamacare, officials failed to complete exhaustive testing of the program’s website in a push to begin signups by Oct. 1, people involved in the rollout have told Bloomberg News. The Healthcare.gov site went live without attempts to replicate a customer’s complete experience, said a person familiar with the project who asked not to be identified to discuss what happened.

The introduction was so rushed that, as recently as last week, the exchange’s computer code contained placeholder language that programmers typically use in preliminary drafts, said Clay Johnson, a former White House presidential innovation fellow during 2012-2013.

“It was a perfect storm for an IT meltdown,” said John Gorman, a former assistant to the director of the Health Care Financing Administration’s Office of Managed Care, the predecessor to the agency responsible, now known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS.

Obama yesterday for the first time said he was upset with the online exchange’s performance so far.

“There’s no sugarcoating it: the website has been too slow,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden. “Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed.”

Park Effort

Park spent the first week of October sleeping on the floor of his office as he tried to help get the website off the mat, said Jonathan Bush, the chief executive officer at Athenahealth Inc. (ATHN:US), which runs cloud computing services for almost 50,000 medical providers. Park and Bush co-founded the company in 1997.

“His attack pattern is to ask lots of questions, getting into the deep specifics of policy and rules and technology in a way that your average senior executive never would,” Bush said.

In 2008, Park helped start San Francisco-based Castlight. He previously worked on health-care projects for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., the McLean, Virginia-based management and technology consultant.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Wayne in Washington at awayne3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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