WASHINGTON — The chief digital architect for the federal health insurance marketplace said Tuesday that 30 percent to 40 percent of the project was still being built.
The official, Henry Chao, made the assessment in testimony before a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lawmakers expressed surprise that so much work remained to be done seven weeks after the federal website opened to the public.
Mr. Chao, the deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the government was still working on “back office systems,” including those needed to pay insurance companies that are supposed to provide coverage to millions of people under President Obama’s health care law.
“We have yet — we still have to build the financial management aspects of the system, which includes our accounting system and payment system and reconciliation system,” Mr. Chao said. These parts of the system, he said, are “still being developed and tested.”
Mr. Chao said the government had largely completed computer systems that were most important to consumers and allowed them to apply for insurance, compare health plans and enroll. However, White House officials said that even these parts of the system were still being repaired and were not performing as well as they had hoped.
Mr. Chao said that until the hearing on Tuesday he had not seen a consultant’s report warning the Obama administration that the project was far behind schedule in March and April of this year.
In the report, the consulting group, McKinsey & Company, anticipated many of the problems that crippled the federal insurance website, HealthCare.gov, when it opened six months later, on Oct. 1. McKinsey said that management indecision, heavy reliance on outside contractors and insufficient time for “end-to-end testing” created risks that the website would not work.
Despite the warnings, Mr. Chao said, top officials decided to fire up the website as planned and did not seriously consider delaying its debut.
Mr. Chao said the decision to open the site last month was made by “a conglomerate” of Obama administration officials that included Marilyn B. Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“I wish I had the luxury of a time machine to go back and change things, but I can’t do that,” Mr. Chao said. “My direction from Marilyn Tavenner was to deliver a system on Oct. 1.”
In April, Mr. Chao said, he told McKinsey that the government faced huge challenges in staying on schedule and meeting the Oct. 1 deadline.
President Obama said Tuesday that the bungling of the health care website showed a larger problem in the way the government bought information technology.
“What we probably needed to do on the front end was to blow up how we procure I.T., especially on a system this complicated,” Mr. Obama said at an event held by The Wall Street Journal. “We did not do that successfully. Now, we are getting it fixed, but it would have been better to do it on the front end, rather than the back end.”
“In fact,” Mr. Obama said, “there’s probably no bigger gap between the private sector and the public sector than I.T.”
Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, said at the congressional hearing that administration officials were like airplane pilots who ignored storm warnings. The administration’s attitude, he said, was, “Don’t check the weather, we’re flying anyway.”
It was, Mr. Burgess said, “a recipe of disaster.”
Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Tuesday that the administration “continues to make measurable progress to improve HealthCare.gov.”
Specifically, she said, the government has fixed “two-thirds of the high-priority bugs” that were responsible for inaccuracies in enrollment data and for the difficulties consumers had in signing up directly with insurers.
Ms. Bataille indicated that consumers could bypass the federal website and use insurance company sites to file applications, especially if they did not need subsidies to help defray the costs.
But people using insurance company websites will not necessarily see health plans available from competing insurers. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, has repeatedly promoted “transparency and competition” as a way to drive down premiums.
McKinsey & Company said that construction of the federal website had been hamstrung by the fact that the project had no clearly identified leader and that government contractors received conflicting instructions from different offices at the Medicare agency.
Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, said the McKinsey report showed chaos at the Medicare agency, with “nobody in charge.”
“This report says the White House absolutely knew what was going on, and if they didn’t tell the president — he ought to be firing those people today,” Mr. Scalise said.
Representative Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas, said the report made it “absolutely clear that this website was not going to work well, if at all, on Oct. 1.”
Ms. Sebelius, who was in Florida on Tuesday, said the website would improve, but she appeared to lower expectations and to play down the significance of a Nov. 30 deadline set by the White House to fix it.
“The 30th of November is not a magic go, no-go date,” Ms. Sebelius told The Associated Press. “It is a work of constant improvement. We have some very specific things we know we need to complete by the 30th, and that punch list is getting knocked out every week.”
Ms. Sebelius said last month that the security of the federal website had been tested by the Mitre Corporation and that the company “did not raise flags about going ahead” on Oct. 1.
But Jason Providakes, a senior vice president at Mitre, said at the hearing on Tuesday: “Mitre is not in charge of security for HealthCare.gov. We were not asked, nor did we perform, end-to-end security testing. We have no view on the overall safety or security status of HealthCare.gov.”