GOP asked tech founder, ex-fugitive McAfee to diagnose Obamacare
The House committee responsible for Obamacare oversight last week asked for expert guidance about the troubled launch of the federal Healthcare.gov site from John McAfee, the tech legend once suspected in the murder of his neighbor in Central America, CNBC has learned.
That Republican-controlled committee wanted the McAfee Associates founder to "guide our oversight and review of" the implementation of the federal marketplace selling Obamacare insurance, according to an email obtained by CNBC.com.
The committee suggested that McAfee might discuss the technologically botched rollout with members of Congress.
McAfee made $100 million from the 2004 sale of his former company, which still sells the widely used McAfee antivirus software. He later began investing in the housing market and lost much of his fortune in the 2008 housing crash.
Last year, he made international headlines when he went on the lam in Central America after Greg Faull, his neighbor in Belize, was found dead from a bullet in his head sometime after confronting McAfee about his barking dogs. McAfee later was detained in Guatemala, and eventually deported to the U.S. without being charged in the murder, which he denies committing.
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Last week, he was approached by a key congressional staffer, Sean Hayes, counsel with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, about sharing his expertise in an inquiry into what has gone wrong with HealthCare.gov.
"This is the Committee of jurisdiction for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare)," Hayes wrote in an Oct. 14 email to McAfee's lawyer, Francois Garcia. "For three years we have been monitoring the implementation of the law and have been trying to dig into what has happened with the Exchange rollout."
"Given the failures of Healthcare.gov, and Mr. McAfee's expertise, I was hoping he might be able to discuss his views with staff on the hill," Hayes wrote. "It would be an informal discussion: we would take notes but these would not be for attribution, it would mainly guide our oversight and review of the program."
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"This would hopefully not be a heavy lift for him: what problems could lead to the compromise of personal identifying information? What could we be doing to prevent data or identify theft? What advice generally does he have?" Hayes wrote.
McAfee told CNBC that he was interested in speaking to the committee, whose majority membership is hostile to President Barack Obama's signature health-care reform law.
HealthCare.gov opened for business Oct. 1 but has been plagued by a myriad of technological problems that have made it extremely difficult for people to both create accounts on the site and enroll in the insurance plans being sold there. The federal government set up the site to sell insurance to residents of the 36 states whose states are not operating their own marketplaces.
Emails that McAfee provided to CNBC show that arrangements were being made for him to fly to Washington from his home in Portland, Ore., last week at his own expense to speak with staffers after the committee declined his request to pay for his travel.
But last Wednesday, Hayes wrote back to Garcia, McAfee's lawyer, saying "unfortunately with the schedule in the air it doesn't look like we can do this right now—would a phone breifing [sic] be possible?"
At the time of that email, Congress was in the midst of intense negotiations to resolve the government shutdown.
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Hayes declined to comment when questioned by CNBC. But a source on the committee said, "In an effort to better understand the technology concerns, we reached out to a few of the experts who have been featured in media reports on the health care exchange 'glitches.' ... However, no interview was ever scheduled with McAfee."
When asked if he thought it was odd for the House committee to want to talk to him about HealthCare.gov, McAfee said, "Not at all."
"Earlier this year, I was in Canada because of the people who are doing the documentary [about his life] and the movie are located in Montreal and I've been in every major newspaper and magazine and they treat me like a technical god there," McAfee said. "I do not know why. I think it has to do with the McAfee legacy.
"What happened in Belize in terms of all the things that have happened to me in my life, it's a very small part of it," he said.
McAfee said he would have told Congress to effectively start from scratch on the HealthCare.gov website.
"I promise you this cannot be fixed without at least scrapping the front-end processing, which is more than half of the systems," he said. "Seriously, if it were me and I were running this and I had been asleep in a hospital for two years and woke up to this mess, I would say OK, throw it out and start over. But start over in the right way."
HealthCare.gov wasn't too ambitious an idea, McAfee added, but the government has overpaid for it.
"It's not that it's an ambitious program—it's that it's an ambitious program considering the hallways that people have to march down in order to implement, and these hallways are the way you have to do things in the government, that are defined in these massive books of regulation or rules that you have to adhere to in order to compete in a government contract," he said.
McAfee was scornful of CGI Federal, the American subsidiary of CGI Group, a Canadian company that received a contract initially worth nearly $100 million to act as the primary contractor in building HealthCare.gov.
"It sounds a little bit absurd," McAfee said. "The Canadians are not well known for being high technologists compared to the Americans."
"You know we have a number of high-technology companies here in America," he said. "You know Silicon Valley has nothing but such entities that are competent, efficient and certainly more experienced than the Canadian companies. And I'm not putting the Canadians down at all. I'm just saying that the technology tends to aggregate in certain parts of the world. And so it would seem very strange for an American government to seek outside help in developing a complex system. And yet that's what they did. I don't know why, but it's bizarre."
"If you Google CGI, you'll find that they were in serious trouble with the Canadian government with health-care systems that were not delivered on time and were nonfunctional. So you would have thought that someone would have looked at that past history and said, 'I don't think that we can go with them.' I mean, I wouldn't have chosen them."
—By CNBC's Jeff Pohlman and Dan Mangan. Follow them on Twitter @_DanMangan and @cnbcinvestigate.