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U.S. passes up firms' offers to help healthcare website: committee

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration appears to have passed up offers from Amazon and Microsoft to help fix the federal government's troubled healthcare enrollment website, according to documents released on Tuesday by a Republican-led congressional investigating committee.

An October 7 inquiry from Amazon's subsidiary Amazon Web Services Inc. was turned down by two senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseeing implementation of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law, according to copies of emails provided by the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Microsoft also contacted HHS and the White House with offers of "technical expertise and assistance," but the company has not provided any such services, a Microsoft representative said in an October 25 letter to the committee. The letter did not say whether the administration had responded to Microsoft's offers.

Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the committee and a dogged critic of the Obama administration, last week wrote to eight technology companies asking whether they had been involved in what the administration had called a "tech surge" aimed at fixing the website, Healthcare.gov.

The oversight committee released some of the companies' responses.

Republicans have long been opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare," and have started their own congressional probe into the role of the White House in the October 1 rollout of the website. It is a critical tool of the reforms, meant to help the uninsured get medical coverage, but it has been riddled with snags.

The Obama administration said earlier this month it was bringing in high-tech experts to sort out the website, but it has given few details of who may be involved, other than to announce last week that Quality Software Services Inc, or QSSI, will serve as a general contractor to oversee repairs.

"We wrote to these companies because the administration said there was a tech surge underway but was hazy on the details," said Caitlin Carroll, an Issa spokeswoman.

The responses "raise even more questions about who at HHS is doing what to solve the problems" with the website, she said. There was no immediate comment from HHS.

Issa has subpoenaed QSSI, which is a unit of health insurer UnitedHealth Group and also has a technology contract related to the website, for documents related to the project.

"SOME CHALLENGES"

An Amazon representative wrote to the committee on October 28 to describe the company's contacts with the administration about the website.

Amazon sent the panel copies of emails, showing an employee of Amazon Web Services Inc (AWS) emailed two HHS officials on October 7 saying, "I hear there are some challenges with Healthcare.gov. Is there anything we can do to help?"

HHS' Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak replied to Amazon by email on October 8: "I wish there was. I actually wish there was something I could do to help."

HHS' Chief Information Officer Frank Baitman replied to Amazon on October 7, "Thanks for the offer! Unfortunately, as you know, I haven't been involved with Healthcare.gov. I'm still trying to figure out how I can help, and may very well reach out for assistance should the opportunity present itself."

Issa has written to Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Verizon Enterprise Solutions, Oracle, Expedia, Apple, and Kayak, Carroll said.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Paul Simao)

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