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There's time to fix Obamacare problems: Ex-Oracle prez

Tuesday, 22 Oct 2013 | 3:37 PM ET
President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the error-plagued launch of the Affordable Care Act's online enrollment website at the White House on Monday.
Getty Images
President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the error-plagued launch of the Affordable Care Act's online enrollment website at the White House on Monday.

The federal Obamacare insurance marketplace's many tech problems were inevitable given the brief time contractors had to build it—but they can be fixed fairly soon at a fraction of the troubled website's cost, the ex-president of software giant Oracle told CNBC.com.

"This is not an intractable problem," Infor CEO Charles Phillips said Tuesday about the government's HealthCare.gov site. "It takes time, but it is fixable ... It's going to take several months, most likely, not years."

"Relative to what they've already spent, it should be a small number," Phillips said of the cost to solve problems at the site, which is selling health insurance to residents of the 36 states not operating their own Obamacare insurance exchanges.

Phillips said primary contractor CGI Federal and the other contractors like his former company Oracle didn't have enough time to properly build and test HealthCare.gov by the Oct. 1 launch date, because they received system requirements from the government only last April.

"I would have been surprised if it had worked on Day One," said Phillips, whose current company provides software used by 23 of the nation's 50 largest public hospitals.

"Given when they got the requirements, this was bound to happen," said Phillips, noting that it is a complex task to build a site from scratch that involves sharing data between multiple government websites that were never designed to work together.

(Read more: The GOP's expert on Obamacare? Former fugitive John McAfee)

In addition to that, CGI has told Congress, federal officials a month before the launch told contractors to change the design of HealthCare.gov to prevent users from seeing competing insurance plan prices before they created an account, a change that has been blamed for clogging up the site.

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As the U.S. government health-care website is hit by error messages and delays, Bernie Lo and Andrew Ross Sorkin argue over the challenges that Obamacare faces.

Contractors "didn't have time to do adequate testing," such as running multiple simulations of people opening accounts, applying for insurance and qualifying for government subsidies, said Phillips, who has served on President Barack Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Now, ironically, "they have time now [to test] because it's not working," and "they have a lot of data cases, they see what fails," Phillips said.

Separately, an executive at a company that worked closely with government officials involved in HealthCare.gov said that in the months leading up to the launch date "there were lots and lots of bugs that just got swept under the rug and ignored."

"There were all these things that just didn't work; rates were not working, certain sections of the site were not working and just a week before they said, 'All of these things don't matter, we're going to launch anyway,' " that source said.

That attitude, the source said, echoed what federal officials had long been saying about HealthCare.gov, the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act.

"They had said, repeatedly, month and months before, there was no way they were going to delay it," the source recalled. "They were going to launch with what they had no matter what they had."

(Read more: Grim Obamacare stats)

As a result, enrollments in the Obamacare insurance plans are believed to be extremely low. And insurers have reported that the few enrollments they are receiving from HealthCare.gov contain questionable data, which are further slowing down the sign-up process.

Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor
Source: Infor
Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor

Enrollment levels "are very, very, very much below what was anticipated," said Brandon Cruz, president of online insurance marketplace GoHealth. "I don't know anyone who has gotten through the [enrollment] process, and I don't know anyone who knows anyone who has gotten through the process, but I'm really hoping that changes soon," he said.

Experts have said that if tech problems persist on HealthCare.gov, the government may need to extend the enrollment period, and/or the mandate requiring most individuals to obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a tax penalty.

Cruz's company, and several other big Web insurance sites such as eHealthinsurance.com and GetInsured.com, were supposed to be connected to HealthCare.gov by the Oct. 1 launch so that they could offer the same plans being sold at the government's site, with the same subsidies available from the government.

But as of Tuesday, none of those websites have been able to start selling subsidized Obamacare insurance because the integration function between the private sites and HealthCare.gov "doesn't work" yet, Cruz said. He said it was not clear when HealthCare.gov would fix that particular glitch, which is related to another serious problem of integrating insurance carries into the system.

DeAnn Friedholm, director of health reform for Consumer Reports, said, "we're hoping that the problems with the website can get fixed quickly."

Consumer Reports has urged its readers who are becoming "frustrated" with logging in and navigating HealthCare.gov to take time off from trying to get on that site and check back periodically to see if it has become easier to use.

(Read more: Aetna CEO: So much 'wrong' with Healthcare.gov)

In the meantime, Friedholm said, Consumer Reports has encouraged readers to "get educated" about Obamacare and the options available to them by referring them to a new website CR has set up: Healthlawhelper.org

"What we've been telling consumers is, 'There's time for you to sign up,' " Friedholm said.

Open enrollment in the Obamacare exchanges continues through March 31, although people must enroll and begin paying for insurance by Dec. 15 for it to kick in by Jan. 1.

By CNBC's Dan Mangan and Bertha Coombs. Follow them on Twitter @_DanMangan and @BerthaCoombs

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