"What a train wreck. How can we tax people for not buying a product from a website that doesn't work?" Speaker of the House John Boehner demanded on Wednesday, as report after report indicated that the software problems experienced by the online portal were nowhere near being resolved. Computer experts who spoke with FoxNews.com this week said bad code and a lack of testing could be the culprit, though more complicated problems could mean issues for months to come.
The website Digital Trends reported on Thursday that, based ongovernment documents displaying contracts awarded to CGI Federal Inc., the Canadian-based company which in 2011 won a $93 million contract to build the federal healthcare exchange, the cost of HealthCare.govwas about at $634 million.
'As you compress the project schedule, the overall cost increases.'
- George Edwards, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Southern California.
“We, the taxpayers, seem to have forked up more than $634 million of the federal purse to build the digital equivalent of a rock,” writer Andrew Couts charged, complaining that “Healthcare.gov has shutdown, crapped out, stalled, and mis-loaded so consistently that its track record for failure is challenged only by Congress.”
But officials tell FoxNews.com that the contract figures cited by Digital Trends dated all the way back to 2008, well before the Affordable Care Act was passed, and included other CGI Federal projects not even associated with the new Obamacare exchange.
Digital Trends has since revised its numbers down, settling on an estimate of $500 million, taking into account a figure of $398 million in obligated contracts for building the website and the entire technology portion of the FFE – which includes everything from the massive data hub, call centers, network security, training and support, financial management systems and all other information technology services that support the new online and offline marketplace, as reported by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in June.
The site estimated that more than $100 million more had been spent on salaries and administrative costs, which were not included in the GAO tallies, bringing the figure for the FFE costs to more than $500 million.
But what do we really know about the cost of the website itself?
According to the GAO report, CGI Federal was awarded $88 million (out of the $398 million total) through March 31, for both the FFE information technology and HealthCare.gov. So far, the company has declined to comment how much of that was exclusively used for the website.
In addition, there were several smaller contracts in the GAO report specifically earmarked for the “Web portal,” totaling $55 million. How much of the remaining funds could have gone in part to website-related costs we do not know. As of press time, officials had not returned FoxNews.com calls for clarification.
It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if costs have outpaced original estimates, especially as problems were detected in the system, as FoxNews.com and other outlets reported this week. The administration was adamant about meeting an Oct. 1 launch, which put the pressure on to design and execute fast.
“I would be careful about jumping to any conclusions before fully understanding what was included in each contract,” said George Edwards, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Southern California.
“But I can say that, just as in other industries, as you compress the project schedule, the overall cost increases.”
But officials have no response to complaints that the software code, the very construction of the site, might be at the root of the problems, and how long it might take to work through the kinks, except to say, they are pursuing “software changes that make the system more efficient and enable it to handle higher volume.”
Edwards and others admit that it's difficult to know exactly what is going on with the site.
“Because of the time constraints, they’re crowdsourcing their quality assurance to the American public,” James Turner, a member of the technical staff at software company Beeonics and contributing editor at O’Reilly.com, told FoxNews.com. “We’re being used to find the bugs.”
CGI Group Inc., which has experience in their country’s government healthcare system, has so far declined comment.
Edwards pointed out that the company and whatever sub-contractors working on the job will have to prioritize and work tirelessly to find solutions. Throwing more money and an army of new technicians on the job would be the worst thing to do right now. He believes, in addition, that there might be some back-end problems with the construction of the site that aren’t necessarily obvious to the astute observer, and may indicate longer-term challenges – perhaps right up to the deadline for which Americans must have health insurance, Dec. 15.
And it might be more than just flipping the script.
“It is entirely possible that these problems do not have an easy or cheap fix, such as simply adding more servers and instead stem from more fundamental issues in the site architecture,” Edwards says.
“In my opinion, intermittent, but not fatal, problems will persist for some time – perhaps even until December 15.”