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Cheryl Campbell, senior vice-president of CGI Federal is sworn in during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 24, 2013. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
Cheryl Campbell, senior vice-president of CGI Federal is sworn in during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 24, 2013. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

CGI undergoes grilling by U.S. lawmakers Add to ...

CGI Group Inc. faced the full fury of the U.S. political process on Thursday, as executives from the Canadian technology giant appeared before an angry congressional committee investigating the botched rollout of the healthcare.gov website.

On Thursday, CGI Group’s U.S. subsidiary, CGI Federal Inc., faced roughly four-and-a-half hours of intense questioning before a committee probing the website at the core of U.S. President Barack Obama’s health-care reforms. The website is an online marketplace for health insurance that allows Americans to compare and choose between various plans, but it has been malfunctioning since its Oct. 1 launch – kicking users offline, displaying faulty data and error messages, and reportedly confusing spouses, kids and applicants’ ages.

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For CGI, which has quietly become one of the world’s largest IT services firms and has roughly $2.3-billion (U.S.) in U.S. federal government contracts, the hearing was a tense exercise in trying to mount a defence without angering U.S. lawmakers. At one point, Republican lawmaker David McKinley of West Virginia tried to extract an apology from the assembled contractors.

“I haven’t heard one of you apologize to the American public,” Mr. McKinley said. “Are apologies not in order?”

“So, in my opening statement,” replied CGI senior vice-president Cheryl Campbell, “I said that CGI, as well as myself –”. At that point, Mr. McKinley interrupted: “Just a simple, ‘I’m sorry.’”

“We acknowledged, we acknowledged, sir,” Ms. Campbell continued, before being interrupted again. “Just a simple, ‘I’m sorry,’” Mr. McKinley repeated. “I know men have a hard time saying that.”

The hearing before the House energy and commerce committee – however tough it seemed at times – offered CGI the first chance for the Montreal-based company to defend its reputation under an onslaught of negative coverage. CGI’s Ms. Campbell, an American, faced the brunt of the committee’s questioning, but seemed cool under pressure, making references to her father owning a small business and her husband being a naval aviator. She deflected blame to other contractors and the federal government agency with “overall responsibility” for integrating the project. She refused to apologize and even declined to say she had been too optimistic at a similar hearing in September.

Analysts have said the healthcare.gov problems are not indicative of bigger problems at CGI and the company’s shares ended the day at $34.40 on the New York Stock Exchange, up 2.26 per cent.

Still, the company was beaten up verbally. Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California, said she didn’t buy the “lame excuse” that heavy traffic caused the problems on the website, saying that explanation “really sticks in my craw.” U.S. lawmakers spent a great deal of their allotted time scoring political points. Republicans used the website’s glitches to discredit the government officials in charge of the project, as well as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, widely known as “Obamacare.” Democrats, meanwhile, seized the chance to tar the hearing as another attempt by Republicans to delay health-care reform, with one New Jersey lawmaker calling the hearing a “monkey court.”

The contractors under scrutiny on Thursday – CGI, QSSI, Equifax Workforce Solutions and Serco – tried to shift blame to other contractors. CGI blamed QSSI for the part of the site that handled user registration. QSSI shifted the blame to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency tasked with integrating the various contractors’ work.

Lawmakers zeroed in on two things: the agency’s short, two-week testing period for the whole system (rather than the individual contractors’ parts) in late September, just before the Oct. 1 launch; and on the last-minute request from CMS to stop people from browsing for insurance plans without registering – a move the contractors said put a huge strain on the system, and which Republicans hinted was a political decision from the White House.

“We would have loved to have months,” CGI’s Ms. Campbell said, when asked about the ideal amount of time to test such a complicated software platform.

The hearing’s unanswered questions will likely be asked when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the same committee on Oct. 30. CMS communications director Julie Bataille said the agency has processed 700,000 applications for health insurance coverage, knows about the technical problems and is working to fix the glitches. “We don’t want to look back,” she said on a media conference call held Thursday.

 
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