Governor Blames IBM For Minnesota's Troubled Obamacare Website

IBM Virginia RomettyIBMIBM CEO Ginni Rometty

Yet another state has blamed yet another large IT vendor for the problems with its Affordable Care website.

This time the state is Minnesota and the company on the hot seat is IBM.

In mid-December Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton wrote a letter to CEO Ginny Rometty that dressed down IBM for a laundry list of big problems with the state’s website, MNsure. The governor’s office released the letter last week. (Posted in full below.)

Dayton told IBM:

Your product has not delivered promised functionality and has seriously hindered Minnesotans’ abilities to purchase health insurance or apply for public health care programs through MNsure…. your product has significant defects, which have seriously harmed Minnesota consumers.

IBM’s software is used by the website to determine eligibility. He says it caused the Minnesota site to experience these problems:

  • It allowed people to submit multiple applications without keeping track. This “forced MNsure staff to spend thousands of hours” trying to clean up the data, he says.
  • It didn’t do a reliable job of verifying eligibility in accordance with Federal law, he says, and left some applications floating in “pending status” where the state couldn’t move the application forward and let people buy insurance.
  • Plus, he says, thousands of applications got “stuck in a queue” unable to be processed at all, he wrote. MNsure staff apparently didn’t even know these stuck applications existed.

All told, the letter blamed IBM for 21 problems.

IBM’s Curam subsidiary wasn’t the main contractor, but one several subcontractors working on the $US46 million project. IBM says the main contractor, a company called Maximus, had “overall responsibility” for the site, including testing that it worked properly.

After getting the letter, IBM swiftly sent dozens of workers to St. Paul and agreed to give the state 4,000 man-hours at no charge, reports the StarTribune’s Jackie Crosby.

Things are working better, though not perfectly, now, IBM says.

On Friday, MNsure said 67,805 people had enrolled, including 14,600 who signed up in the last four days of December.

To be sure, IBM isn’t the only big vendor to be blamed for problems with a state health insurance exchange.

In November, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley blasted Oracle on television for problems with Oregon’s website. Last month, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber even said it would delay making a $US20 million payment to Oracle until the site was fixed. Oracle had no comment.

The truth is, that that these health care exchanges are like a perfect storm. Some 40% of large scale, complex software projects like these are disasters, a 2012 McKinsey study revealed. Add in politicians, public pressure and something as important as health insurance, and trouble with some of them is guaranteed.

Here’s IBM’s full statement:

“The majority of concerns with the Curam software that were expressed by Governor Dayton three weeks ago have been addressed. These are not the only issues related to the performance of the MNSure system. IBM is just one of several subcontractors working on this project. The prime contractor, Maximus, Inc, has overall responsibility for the MNsure system including integration and testing of all the components prior to October 1. IBM continues to work closely with the other suppliers and the State of Minnesota to make MNsure a more positive experience for Minnesota citizens. As an example, the per cent of suspended applications for coverage decreased by two thirds between mid-December and early January and the system is now handling cases at over a 95% daily success rate.

“To sustain the progress, we are providing on-site services and technical resources beyond the scope of IBM’s contractual responsibilities to assist the State in resolving the remaining issues as quickly as possible. IBM Senior Vice President for Software Solutions, Mike Rhodin, has made this project a priority and has been in regular contact with Governor Dayton and the MNSure leaders. Although our original role on this project was limited, we are bringing the full resources and capabilities of IBM to the State because of the importance of the success of the project.”

Here’s the full letter:

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