Mass. officials knew of problems with health insurance website months before launch

Massachusetts officials knew in July, three months before the launch of the state’s ill-fated health insurance website, that the technology company in charge was far behind on building the site and that there was “a substantial and likely risk” it would not be ready, according to a state official’s memo.

The website launched on Oct. 1 was incomplete and riddled with errors that frustrated consumers, blocked some from getting coverage, and required the state to move tens of thousands of people whose applications could not be processed into temporary insurance programs.

The head of the Massachusetts Health Connector Authority, which runs the insurance marketplace, was copied on the July memo. But the executive director, Jean Yang, and her staff never told the Connector board during its monthly public meetings that the project was off track, according to meeting minutes.

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In the first weeks of October, Governor Deval Patrick and officials at the Massachusetts Health Connector, which runs the insurance marketplace, maintained a positive message about the site, saying the glitches were minor and the site would improve over time, particularly as improvements were made to a federal data hub needed for processing applications.

The federal insurance website, developed by the same tech company, CGI, had gotten off to a bad start, too.

The July memo and another written by Dr. Jay Himmelstein, the University of Massachusetts Medical School professor in charge of managing the contract for the state, show state officials were aware the website problems were far more serious.

Himmelstein, who is also director of the New England States Collaborative for Insurance Exchange Systems, wrote to CGI again on Oct. 25. He asked to begin a mediation process. The company had failed to deliver on its contract, he wrote, and the university would explore its “options to mitigate damages to the Commonwealth.”

By the end of November, it was clear to the public that problems with the state website were more than just glitches. Some customers were unable to complete an application online because the website locked them out of their accounts or delivered confusing error messages, and they were spending hours waiting for customer service.

The university, which provided the memos to the Globe late Thursday, did not release the company’s responses to Himmelstein. Representatives for the University of Massachusetts, Patrick’s office, and the Connector did not make anyone available to be interviewed for this report.

The developer “agreed to the scope and schedule for this project, and we kept a very close watch on their work, including taking a number of proactive project management steps,” Connector spokeswoman Alex Zaroulis said in an e-mail. “Despite those efforts, the vendor consistently underperformed and did not meet stipulated deadlines.”

She said the Connector and other state agencies are working to hold CGI accountable to its contract. An independent technology company completed a review of the project last week. The findings, which are expected to include recommendations on how the state should proceed, have not been released.

The company continues to update the website with fixes and is committed to improving the website’s performance, CGI spokeswoman Linda Odorisio said in an e-mail.

Himmelstein’s July memo includes a timeline of the many deadlines CGI had reportedly missed. In February, he wrote, the project was behind schedule, so the university amended the contract.

CGI asked in April to push back major portions of the project, but the state rejected the request, Himmelstein wrote, because it would have had a “major disruptive impact” on the plans for implementing the federal health law.

In May, the company and the university agreed on a tight timeline that limited testing and required the company to deliver a scaled-back version of the website by Oct. 1. By June, it was clear CGI was behind schedule even on building the reduced site, the memo said.

Himmelstein asked the company to make a plan for fast-tracking the project and explained that a failure to launch would hurt the reputation of state agencies involved, run counter to federal law, and cost the state more money. It would “prevent the citizens of the Commonwealth from accessing programs that they are entitled to under the Affordable Care Act,” he wrote.

Connector board meeting minutes between July and October include no discussion of serious problems.

Asked about the memos Friday, Connector board member Nancy Turnbull, associate dean for educational programs at Harvard School of Public Health, said she felt she had been kept well informed about problems with the website, though she said she often asks staff for information beyond what is presented during the public meeting.

The track record of problems with CGI “was not brought to our attention in July,” said Jonathan Gruber, a board member and MIT economist who helped to write the state and federal health care laws.

“Looking back, it probably should have been, but the truth is that I probably wouldn’t have done something different, in the end,” he said.

The board is heavily focused on policy matters, such as the structure of the insurance market and costs to consumers, and members have little technology expertise, Gruber said.

Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director of the consumer group Health Care for All, said she was angry that CGI had missed deadlines and hoped the state will be more transparent from now on about efforts to fix the website.

For those who are struggling because they do not have health insurance or are confused about the coverage they have, she said, “it will provide some reassurance that this is temporary.”