The Obama administration said Tuesday that it will call in a group of scholars known for their tech savvy and familiarity with government programs to help solve the problems that persist in the new federal health insurance exchange.
Former Office of Management and Budget acting director Jeffrey Zients will help lead the project.
Contractors and experts from the insurance industry, "veterans of top Silicon Valley" companies and others are coming to help fix problems with the HealthCare.gov site, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an announcement. USA TODAY reported Tuesday that those companies include telecommunications giant Verizon.
"These reinforcements include a handful of Presidential Innovation Fellows," Sebelius said. "This new infusion of talent will bring a powerful array of subject matter expertise and skills, including extensive experience scaling major IT systems."
The extra resources, Sebelius said, will help determine the problem. HHS will also work with states whose exchanges have been working well.
Aneesh Chopra, the Obama administration's former chief technology officer and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told USA TODAY the fellows, all of whom have outside technology experience, have also been trained in how the government works.
Chopra said the program came about in part because of the Affordable Care Act, because early in the implementation of the law, the government was required to build a website that included insurance information from every provider. The fellows helped with that project.
"That went live in 2010, and it was built in less than 90 days," Chopra said. "It was almost a Herculean task, but (chief technology officer) Todd (Park) was able to shepherd the program through."
He said Zients is "very well-versed in this subject," and added that the innovation fellows are a "quiver in the bow" to address the problems.
"I think they're going to provide a little bit of the innovation creativity side of the picture," he said.
The fellows have experience working everywhere from Google to renewable energy companies to organizations they created themselves to confront some of the world's biggest problems. The program was launched in August 2012.
Adam Becker, chief technology officer and co-founder of a company called the Department of Better Technology and one of the first fellows, said applying consisted of an open enrollment process online. He was one of 18 who made it out of 700 applicants.
As a website developer, Becker helped with a project that made it easier for small businesses to apply for government contracts -- something he continues to do with his business, only at the local government level, he said.
Becker had no previous government experience, and he said that aspect of the program was "amazing." He is 21, but said the average age was about 30.
While he was in the program, some of the fellows were called in to help after Superstorm Sandy. "Some of the fellows were able to have some tangible impact," he said.
The scholars will probably work on HealthCare.gov only on a part-time basis, Becker said, because they have limited time to finish the projects they were originally assigned. For Sandy, they worked on the weekends while continuing their assigned project work.
Sebelius said the government will also be working with its original federal exchange contractor, CGI.
Copyright 2013 USA TODAY
Original headline: HHS taps Zients, fellows for tech help
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