10/10/2013 01:35 EDT

Obamacare Site Glitches Shine Spotlight On Canadian IT Giant CGI

President Barack Obama speaks as he stands with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. President Obama is nominating Yellen to be chairman of the nation's powerful central bank, succeeding Bernanke at a pivotal time for the economy and the Fed's monetary policies. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A Montreal-based information technology giant has found itself in the middle of an uproar over glitches in the newly-launched Obamacare website, with some pundits ready to blame Canada.

CGI Federal, a division of CGI Group, the world’s sixth-largest IT firm, holds the principal contract to develop and run the federal website. The site hosts the health care exchanges where Americans in 36 U.S. states can sign up for subsidized health care. (The remaining states are building their own health care exchanges.)

The U.S. government has paid CGI at least $88 million U.S. to build and support the federal exchange, the Washington Post reports.

But glitches plagued the CGI-built website from the moment it launched Oct. 1.

Blank boxes where security questions are supposed to appear. Pleas to ‘be patient.’ Error messages galore. Notices that ‘the system is busy right now.’ Web pages timing out before they load. Garbled lines of text riddled with stray question marks,” Reuters reported.

And the glitches had a substantial impact. According to an AP-GfK poll, three-quarters of visitors to the site reported problems signing up.

The Obama administration attributed the issues to overwhelming demand. The federal site received more than 8 million visitors in its first week, the U.S. government said.

But there may be deeper, structural problems with the site, some IT experts say. They say the site’s design is fundamentally flawed, loading too many different files when users carry out certain functions on the site, like creating a new account.

It’s a bug in the system, a coding problem,” said Jhoti Bansal, CEO of application performance management firm AppDynamics.

We are spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week working with our client and working with our partners in order to stabilize the enrolment [process] and finish the roll-out of this very complex project,” CGI spokesperson Lorne Gorber told the Globe and Mail.

All the same, the company has come in for criticism in the U.S.

The (U.S.) government tends to contract with firms that are better at securing contracts than they are at developing web sites,” the U.S. edition of The Huffington Post quipped.

Some observers and pundits who oppose Obamacare see ominous signs in the choice of CGI as the contractor for, as the company also has contracts administering public health care systems in Canada.

The company is deeply embedded in Canada’s single-payer system,” the Washington Examiner reported. “CGI has provided IT services to the Canadian Ministries of Health in Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Saskatchewan, as well as to the national health provider, Health Canada.”

CGI “has been a darling of the Obama administration, which since 2009 has bestowed it with $1.4 billion in federal contracts,” the paper stated.

The Globe and Mail notes that one CNBC pundit began a recent segment with the question, “Should we immediately go to war with Canada over the CGI thing?”

No, responded former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the segment. Dean argued technical glitches are to be expected when a complex website like this is launched.

“It happen[ed] in almost every tech roll-out that I’ve seen over a long period of time,” he said.

CGI has benefited greatly from Obamacare. Its stock is up more than 30 per cent over the past year, and has seen its health care revenues grow 90 per cent in that time, the Globe reports.

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