It's Easy To Blame The Canadians For HealthCare.gov Problems

Play associated audio

President Obama is putting former CEO Jeff Zients in charge of the "tech surge" — the administration's emergency effort to fix the Web portal at the heart of the federal government's new health care market. But what about the contractors that built the system? What's their responsibility?

You may have never heard of CGI, but it's the Canadian information technology company that had the biggest piece of the project. In its hometown of Montreal, it's a big deal.

The company "got started a number of years ago with a couple of guys from Quebec City who didn't even speak English," says Karl Moore, a business professor at Montreal's McGill University who knows the company well.

"They've gone from those humble roots, moved to Montreal, and then started to grow. And they grew a lot through acquisition," he says.

CGI is now Canada's biggest tech company, and it sells IT services around the world. Moore says the company has a good reputation. But there have been some problems. Just last year, the province of Ontario fired CGI for failing to deliver a health care-related IT project on time.

Some in Washington now wonder whether CGI's U.S. subsidiary, CGI Federal, deserves blame for fumbling on the Obamacare project.

"I think that's grossly unfair. I think they're a victim of their circumstances," says Sanjiv Augustine, president of LitheSpeed LLC, a training and software development company in Washington.

He says federal rules require projects to be divvied up among too many contractors — in this case, 54 other companies besides CGI. The idea is to spread the wealth and avoid overcharging. But, he says, it's no way to build software.

"What folks attempt to do is to use the same model ... to build a cruise missile and to develop a smaller software system," Augustine says. "And it just doesn't work."

He says software is best designed by small teams, and unlike a cruise missile, the whole project doesn't need to be ready at the same time. It's easier to put up a Web portal in stages — that's what happened in Colorado.

Cammie Blais is the chief financial officer for that state's health insurance market, which went online at the same time that the federal one did, on Oct. 1.

"We knew that there would be some things that would be delayed in rolling out," Blais says. "There would be some enhancements — some customer decision tools — that we would actually not be able to do until after 'go-live.' "

Blais says there were only about eight contractors working on Colorado's system, and one company was clearly in charge. That company was another subsidiary of CGI.

"We trusted them to manage the other technology vendors that they were integrating, and we worked in a close partnership with them," Blais says.

That's in contrast with the development of the federal website, where no single contractor was in charge.

CGI Federal wouldn't give NPR an interview, but in an email, a spokesperson said the company was not the "lead" contractor. In fact, he said, none of the companies was the lead, and none was capable of testing the system end-to-end. That responsibility was left to the government.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Far From 'Infinitesimal': A Mathematical Paradox's Role In History

It seems like a simple question: How many parts can you divide a line into? The troublesome answer was square at the root of two of Europe's greatest social crises.
NPR

Soup to Nuts, Restaurants Smoke It All

While you won't find cigarettes in restaurants anymore, some smoking isn't banned. It's not just meat, either; it's hot to smoke just about anything edible.
WAMU 88.5

Virginia Remains At Odds With Feds On Medicaid Expansion

Lawmakers in Virginia continue to resist the $9.6 billion Medicaid expansion on offer from the federal government as part of the Affordable Care Act.

NPR

Watch For The Blind Lets You Feel Time Passing

A new watch allows the blind to feel time on their wrists. Designer Hyungsoo Kim tells NPR's Wade Goodwyn his watch allows users to tell time accurately without revealing their disabilities.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.