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The Obama administration has begun a wide-ranging search for companies to run the online federal health insurance exchange, seeking new talent to prevent a repeat of problems that immobilized the website last fall.

In laying out specifications for the project, the administration also provided insight into the next phase of development of the insurance marketplace, which is expected to handle a significant increase in enrollment over the next several years.

Federal officials said Monday that they intended to hold a new competition before awarding a contract and that they were particularly interested in responses from small businesses owned by women, disabled veterans and “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals,” including blacks and Hispanic Americans.

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the move was a prelude to “the expected recompetition” of the contract for operation of the federal exchange. “We must perform market research in order to determine if there are any small businesses that could perform this work,” Mr. Albright said.

The focus on smaller companies may reflect the administration’s displeasure with how the project was managed by large government contractors like CGI Federal, the American subsidiary of the CGI Group of Montreal, which had much of the responsibility for HealthCare.gov. Administration officials blamed the company for many of the problems that prevented people from enrolling online last fall, and in January they brought in another company, Accenture, as the “lead contractor.”

The administration is now looking for companies to take over the project when Accenture’s contract expires in January 2015.

Joanne Veto, a spokeswoman for Accenture, said the government’s effort did not reflect on the company’s performance.

In documents distributed to federal contractors, the administration makes clear that it wants to find a vendor that can overhaul the website under “aggressive time constraints.” Specifically, it wants a company that can “transition a large-scale systems development project” of 400 to 500 employees in three months.

The new contractor is supposed to make “continuous improvements” in the federal website, expanding its capacity and reducing error rates and response times.

The contractor must not only assess individual components, but also “evaluate performance of the overall system, in aggregate and end-to-end” — a type of evaluation that was not done before the debut of HealthCare.gov last October.

The contractor is also supposed to test the system two months before the start of the next open enrollment period on Nov. 15, and then fix any “critical and severe defects” detected in testing.

President Obama said recently that eight million people had signed up for insurance through the federal and state exchanges, but he did not say how many had activated their coverage by paying premiums. The Congressional Budget Office is estimating that enrollment through the exchanges will climb to 13 million next year and 24 million in 2016.

Despite the surge in enrollment last month, a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted in mid-April found that most Americans believed the law did not reach its sign-up goals.

Nearly six in 10 people — 57 percent — said that the number of Americans signing up for insurance fell short of the government’s expectations. The same proportion agreed with the statement that “there have been so many problems since the law’s rollout that it’s clear the law is not working as planned.” About a third of Democrats believe the law is not working.

The poll found no change in the last month in the public’s view of the law, with 46 percent of people saying they had an unfavorable view and 38 percent a favorable view.

In a separate study, Avalere Health, a consulting company, reported Monday that information on prescription drug coverage was, in many cases, not readily available to consumers shopping on the exchanges.

Avalere analyzed the data available for 85 plans and found that information on drug coverage was difficult or impossible to find for about half.

The study was financed by Pfizer, but Avalere said it maintained editorial control.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/us/administration-begins-search-for-new-contractors-to-run-health-care-site.html?_r=0

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