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HHS Contractors Conference: 'The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly'

10:21 AM, Dec 16, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
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Two days before Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius announced on December 11 that she was ordering a comprehensive investigation into the reasons behind the Obamacare launch debacle, HHS announced an upcoming Contracting with CMS Conference with topics such as "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly of Contract Proposals."  Based on Sebelius's testimony before a Congressional committee, her agency's experience with contracts in recent years have included less of the former and more of the latter.  CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) is the division of HHS that was largely responsible for hiring contractors to develop and run the federal government's Obamacare marketplace.

Kathleen Sebelius official portrait

The investigation ordered by Sebelius will center around the agency's work with contractors, because, the secretary wrote, "HHS is the third largest federal contracting agency, and CMS alone spent $5.3 billion in 2013 on contracting engagements."  Three actions were ordered by Sebelius, each involving the contracting process:

  • Inspector General, Dan Levinson, is to "review the acquisition process, overall program management, and contractor performance and payment issues related to the development and management of the HealthCare.gov website."
  • A new position will be established, Chief Risk Officer, whose "first assignment will be to review risk management practices when it comes to IT acquisition and contracting," and report back within sixty days.
  • The agency will "update and expand CMS employee training on best practices for contractor and procurement management, rules and procedures."

The timing of Sebelius's announcement is interesting since the Contracting with CMS Conference is to be held on January 31, 2014, which falls within the 60 day window set by Sebelius for the new Chief Risk Officer to report back to the secretary.  A flyer advertising the conference promotes not only "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly of Contract Proposals," but "Good News Stories by Contractors" and "Why Past Performance is Important," as well:

As reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD in October, the conference was originally scheduled for November 4, 2013, but was abruptly cancelled less than two weeks prior to that date with no explanation.  A "save the date" notice was posted on November 21 for the January 31, 2014 date.  Since the investigation ordered by Sebelius will overlap the conference, it seems likely a second postponement may be in the offing since the very contracting process that is the subject of the conference will still be under review by HHS.

Also, given that Sebelius's actions were likely under consideration for some time prior to the December 11 announcement, it is curious that the agency still went ahead with the conference announcement.  That in itself may be a question for the investigators to consider as they, in Sebelius's words, seek a "better understanding the structural and managerial policies" that led to the "flawed and simply unacceptable" launch of Healthcare.gov.

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