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Watchdog: Accountability

Obamacare 'tech surge' experts are White House fellows

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President Obama promised elite Silicon Valley talent to fix Healthcare.gov, but so far his "tech surge" appears to consist of a handful of White House fellows assigned to the main contractor that designed the troubled website.

“If there were tech experts that were flown in from Silicon Valley, they did not land at our facility,” said a knowledgeable official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“There was not a Learjet that unloaded the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world,” the official said. Zuckerberg is the 29-year-old co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook.

A second official in a key position, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "There seems to be a few people out there, but I would say 'surge' is an overstatement, unless you count Jeff Zients.”

Zients is a former acting director of the federal Office Management and Budget who rejoined the Obama administration to oversee the tech surge.

Federal officials plucked participants in the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and assigned them to CGI Federal, the U.S. subsidiary of CGI Group, the Canadian firm that was awarded the $94 million main design contract for Healthcare.gov. Fellows typically spend six to 13 months working in a federal department or agency as “change agents” and to promote government-wide innovation, according to whitehouse.gov.

Healthcare.gov is the Obamacare program's web portal and was launched Oct. 1. The site immediately suffered so many malfunctions that it became a massive embarrassment for the president.

So far, the government has spent an estimated $600 million on the site's design, which until last week was managed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Columbia, Md.-based QSSI was also a Healthcare.gov contractor, but was promoted by Zients to replace CMS as the website project's systems integrator.

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked at an Oct. 24 hearing if a CGI executive or any of the three other contractors testifying before the panel could identify the surge participants.

All four witnesses said they were unable to identify them. CGI Senior Vice President Cheryl Campbell said she thought they “have small businesses of their own.”

Gardner said he was shocked to learn of the White House fellows being dispatched to CGI Federal.

“It’s simply shocking to hear that the level of assistance they provided was less-than-junior-varsity help,” Gardner told the Washington Examiner.

“The president promised the ‘best and the brightest.’ He didn’t promise to bring in substitute players for an already-failed system,” Gardner said.

Obama said Oct. 21 in a White House Rose Garden presentation that help was coming from “experts from some of America’s top private-sector tech companies," and claimed that “we’ve had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team."

The next day, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius boasted in a blog post that "veterans from top Silicon Valley companies” had been recruited to assist the tech surge.

Sebelius is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“In terms of this new revelation, I would be very interested to hear what she’s said about the so-called 'best and brightest' that were brought into CGI,” Gardner said.

Julie Bataille, CMS' spokeswoman, declined to tell journalists during an Oct. 28 conference call how many people are working on the surge.

Doing that, she said, would be "a distraction."

Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, said, “It’s unbelievable that they haven’t announced who is behind this. You would think they would want to highlight the people to just reassure the country that we’ve got these experts.”

Sunlight is a nonprofit that works to increase transparency and accountability in government.

“You want to know who those turnaround specialists are. I think their silence just speaks volumes,” Allison said.

Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, said, "Especially with the problems the website rollout has encountered, it would be in the best interests to disclose whoever CMS has brought in to remedy the situation.”

A CMS spokesman did not reply to emails seeking comment.

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