10/24/2013 01:32 EDT | Updated 12/24/2013 05:12 EST

Canadian IT firm promises to fix Obamacare website woes

The Canadian-owned company responsible for a major part of the troubled Obamacare website faced tough questions at a hearing on Capitol Hill today and promised to fix the ongoing problems as soon as possible but couldn’t say when the site would be running smoothly.

“I have a team of people working around the clock,” Cheryl Campbell, senior vice-president of CGI Federal, testified at the Energy and Commerce Committee. “The system is improving day over day, we are continuing to work to make improvements.”

CGI Federal is a U.S. subsidiary of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc., and is one of the primary contractors that helped design, the website that got a rocky launch on Oct.1. The website allows uninsured Americans to shop for health insurance, check if they are eligible for federal subsidies and to enrol in a plan. It’s a signature piece of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

The website crashed on the first day and various bugs in the system have prevented some users from logging on, creating user accounts and registering for plans.

Campbell and representatives from three other contractors involved in the new online insurance marketplace got a grilling from frustrated members of Congress who demanded to know what went wrong and when it would be fixed.

Campbell said there is no “silver bullet” explanation for why the website isn’t working properly, that a combination of factors is contributing to the website's dysfunction.

She noted that another contractor, QSSI, is responsible for the “front door” into the system that her company is responsible for – the actual marketplace – and that QSSI's technology created a “bottleneck” that prevented users from creating an account.

Website faced 'unexpected demand'

Andrew Slavitt, QSSI’s executive vice-president, acknowledged to the committee that the system was initially overwhelmed because of “unexpected demand” but that additional capacity has now been added and it's working much better.

He said there was a decision made late in the process to require users to create an account before window shopping that affected the system’s capacity. That decision was made by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the department responsible for implementing the online insurance marketplace, Campbell added.

Each company testified that they tested their own portions of the system in advance and were confident they were ready to go by Oct.1. The end-to-end testing, making sure all the different parts worked together as one system, was only done two weeks before the website went live, the committee heard.

“It would have been better to have more time,” Campbell admitted while emphasizing that CMS was responsible for the overall testing.  “We would have loved to have had months.” She also said it was not her company’s decision to go ahead on Oct.1 with the website, CMS made that call.

Campbell said she doesn’t believe the website needs to be taken down and started again from scratch. She’s confident the problems will be fixed. She couldn’t say when exactly the website will be running perfectly but expects it to be working smoothly by Dec.15. That’s the deadline for when people have to sign up in order for the coverage plans they buy to begin Jan.1.

Thursday's hearing was the first one the committee has held on the website's problems. Members wanted Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human resources, to appear but she said she couldn't make it and will testify next week instead. Her department oversees CMS. Some members of Congress have called for her resignation because of the embarrassing rollout of the website.