It was the government's fault, contractors on the problem-plagued website for President Barack Obama's signature health care reforms told a congressional hearing on Thursday.
In more than four hours of testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, officials of companies hired to create the HealthCare.gov website cited a lack of testing on the full system and last-minute changes by the federal agency overseeing the online enrollment system.
Angry exchanges between Republicans who oppose the Affordable Care Act and Democrats defending it erupted repeatedly, while the contractors insisted their work went fine even though the software buckled when the system went online on Oct. 1.
Complaints about logging in, lengthy delays, incorrect information relayed to insurance companies and other problems have fueled continued GOP attacks on the 2010 Affordable Care Act that was upheld by the Supreme Court last year.
The White House and administration officials say the enrollment problems are being fixed. On Thursday, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) that oversees the new programs under the health care reforms said almost 700,000 applications have been submitted online on either the federal or state websites.
While the applications don't mean that many people have fully enrolled for health insurance under the new system, the figure represents a significant increase in those who have been able to start the process in recent days.
However, Julie Bataille, the CMS director of communications, was unable to say how many of the 700,000 applications were submitted on the federal website.
At Thursday's hearing, committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan called the launch of the website "nothing short of a disaster," noting that contractors at the hearing previously "looked us in the eye and assured us repeatedly that everything was on track, except that it wasn't."
Upton and other Republicans said it heralded problems with the rest of the health car reforms.
"I am more nervous today than I was when I got here," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan said of security concerns raised by Thursday's testimony, such as code changes being made to fix the problems without undergoing normal testing.
Democrats, however, accused Republicans of continuing a campaign to sabotage the health care reforms instead of working to fix problems in the system intended to help millions of uninsured Americans obtain affordable health coverage.
They noted that media headlines in 2006 blared similar descriptions of rollout problems with the Medicare Part D prescription drug reforms of the Bush administration, but that Democrats then worked with Republicans to resolve the issues instead of trying to scrap the legislation.
"The Republicans don't have clean hands coming here. Their effort is not to make things better," said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey. "Let the goal here be to fix it, not nix it."
In the first detailed account of what happened, officials of four contractors involved in the website creation described a convoluted system of multiple companies operating separately under the oversight of CMS, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Each said their individual components generally performed as planned after internal testing, but all conceded that CMS failed to conduct sufficient "end-to-end" testing of the entire system before the launch.
"The system didn't receive adequate end-to-end testing," declared Andrew Slavitt of Optum, while Cheryl Campbell of CGI Federal added "no one ever gets enough time for testing."
Campbell, whose company has a contract worth a possible total of more than $200 million for its work on the system, noted than an end-to-end test conducted within two weeks of the launch caused the system to crash. She said it was up to CMS to decide on proceeding with the rollout.
Slavitt, whose company stands to make up to $85 million for its work, acknowledged that unexpected volume at the start overwhelmed the "enterprise identity management" or EIDM entry portal blamed for the initial blockages.
He and Campbell blamed a decision by CMS within two weeks of the launch to require users to fully register in order to browse for health insurance products, instead of being able to get information anonymously, as originally planned.
While the technical change to require registration was easy, the result was a much greater burden on the system that it failed to handle, Slavitt and Campbell said.
When asked if CMS was warned about the system's problems ahead of the launch, Slavitt answered yes.
That was enough for GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina to say: "The bottom line here is that CMS is responsible for this failure."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Thursday that administration officials "did not anticipate, we did not know of the kind of problems that would take place beginning on Oct. 1 until Oct. 1 came and we saw these challenges."
He repeated the president's insistence that the problems will be fixed, an assurance also provided by Campbell to the House panel.
"The system is working, people are enrolling, but people will be able to enroll at a faster pace" as troubles get resolved, she told the panel, adding that her company expects the online system to be able to enroll Americans seeking health insurance by Jan. 1.