Obamacare’s ‘Monkey Court’ Hearings: What We’re Learning
Policy + Politics

Obamacare’s ‘Monkey Court’ Hearings: What We’re Learning

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Today’s congressional hearings about the flawed Obamacare website quickly crashed into absurdity. 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been hearing testimony from four federal contractors who contributed to the glitch-ridden federal health insurance exchange. Each individual claimed to have delivered as promised, even as the troubled site meant to help millions buy subsidized insurance has only managed to enroll “thousands” since its Oct. 1 launch. 

“Our portion of the application worked as designed,” said Cheryl Campbell, the senior vice president of lead contractor CGI Federal.

Campbell even declined to say when the problems would be satisfactorily fixed. “I would prefer not doing that,” she said, adding that she doesn’t “like to raise expectations” for a program on which President Obama’s legacy rides.

House Republicans were eager to blast the White House for its failure to disclose more enrollment data about the exchange. “We still don’t know the real picture, as the administration appears allergic to transparency,” said committee chairman Fred Upton (R-MI).


Democrats tried to defend the importance of buying subsidized health coverage. “Let’s make the goal to fix it, not nix it,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).

But as the hearing intensified, Pallone started arguing with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) about whether the event was a “monkey court,” with neither of them able to successfully conclude the debate. The N.J. congressman believed the event had veered toward the simian after Republicans claimed the exchange registration violated user privacy.

Naturally, the hearing brought out its share of contradictory metaphors.

“Nobody can be a blind cheerleader for the Affordable Care Act when they see all these problems right before their eyes,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

But in the middle of this circus, some clarity started to appear about why the federal exchange, which services 36 states, flopped.


The standard excuse by the administration and contractors points to the exchange being overwhelmed by millions of visits, causing the system to crash when users tried to register for an account to review their insurance options. None of the witnesses could identify who in the government made the late-breaking decision to require the registration before looking at the insurance plans developed in accordance with the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) noted that the volume – 19  million visits so far – pales in comparison to what many private websites receive.

“I really think that is a lame excuse,” said the congresswoman from Silicon Valley. “Amazon and eBay don’t crash the week before Christmas.”

The contractors each noted that testing showed that their individual contributions performed as expected. That line of reasoning, akin to assessing a car based on its parts instead of whether it’s drivable, failed to impress Eshoo. “You knew it was going to be integrated,” she said.


Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) asked when the government’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services began to perform integrated testing.

“During the last two weeks in September,” said Campbell. “I don’t have the results. You’ll have to go to CMS.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) could not coax an answer from her as to when Healthcare.gov will be glitch-free, as Campbell said only that her team is working “24 hours a day.”

None of the contractors ever recommended that the government take more time to test the site, or pushed for beta testing to occur before the middle of September, when the exchanges were just days way from being launched.

“Ideally, it would have occurred earlier,” said Andrew Slavitt, group executive president for the contractor Optum/QSSI. “Months would be nice.”