Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Health Website Tests a Tycoon and Tinkerer

President Obama in April with Jeffrey Zients, a fill-in at the Office of Management and Budget.

WASHINGTON — Jeffrey D. Zients, a multimillionaire entrepreneur and management consultant, joined the Obama White House in 2009 with a mandate to streamline the federal bureaucracy. A year later, he issued a prescient warning.

The Times would like to hear from Americans who have begun to sign up for health care under the Affordable Care Act.

The government “largely has missed out” on the information technology revolution, Mr. Zients said in a 2010 internal memo. “I.T. projects too often cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than they should, take years longer than necessary to deploy and deliver technologies that are obsolete by the time they are completed,” he wrote.

These days, Mr. Zients is witnessing that ineptitude up close as the emergency fix-it man charged with righting HealthCare.gov, the bungled online marketplace for medical insurance. He is to become President Obama’s top economic adviser in January, but first he is leading the so-called tech surge to haul HealthCare.gov into the 21st century. Ignoring friends who told him not to get mixed up in the website fiasco, Mr. Zients (pronounced ZYE-ents) promises it will run “smoothly for the vast majority of users” by the end of November — a schedule considered highly optimistic.

Mr. Obama’s reputation, and the electoral fortunes of Democrats, could hinge on the work of Mr. Zients, a man who has no hands-on technology experience — although he has advised health care companies on business practices. In the universe of experts who might have been called in for rescue work, Democrats close to the administration say, there were others perhaps more qualified than Mr. Zients, but he was the best of those Mr. Obama and an insular White House were comfortable with.

In an interview, Denis R. McDonough, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, called Mr. Zients a “force multiplier” who will deliver what he promises. He said the president had given Mr. Zients the same instructions he had given White House staff: “Get this fixed.”

Mr. Zients, who will turn 47 on Tuesday, made a fortune reported to be close to $200 million building two consultancies and taking them public. His wife, Mary, is from a prominent South African mining family — Nelson Mandela attended their wedding — and they live with their four children in Northwest Washington, where an Aston Martin is in the garage. A onetime high school wrestler at the capital’s elite St. Albans School, he is often described as ultracompetitive.

Now he works without pay “on a full-time, trust me, around-the-clock basis,” he told reporters in a conference call on Friday. Mr. Zients shuttles between a health care command center in suburban Herndon, Va., the White House and an office near the coffee machines on the third floor of the hulking Department of Health and Human Services building here, overseeing an effort that includes dozens of tech experts. They include Todd Park, the White House chief technology officer, who is under subpoena by House Republicans to testify at a hearing this week, and Michael Dickerson, an engineer on leave from Google who lists “herding cats” as a skill on his LinkedIn profile.

Administration officials say Mr. Zients, who declined to be interviewed, has intensified the pace at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency responsible for the website. He began work on Oct. 21, the same day Mr. Obama declared that “nobody is madder than me” about the site’s failures, and quickly set about drafting a “punch list” of problems to fix. It is updated daily.

Among other immediate changes, Mr. Zients recommended that the agency hire a general contractor to coordinate repairs, started daily telephone news briefings and instituted at the command center morning and evening “stand up meetings,” so named because each tech team member, in a military-style exercise in accountability, must stand while delivering a progress report.

Mr. Zients told reporters on Friday that the site was getting “better each week” but “remains very slow and sporadic for many users.” He said response times — how long users wait for a page to load — now average less than one second, down from eight seconds. The error rate — how often system failures prevent users from advancing to the next page — is 2 percent, down from 6 percent, Mr. Zients said.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” he said, still promising that he would meet his Nov. 30 deadline.

Even his supporters remain skeptical. “To try to come in, in six weeks, and sort something like this out — I just have a lot of sympathy for him,” said Joshua B. Bolten, a friend of Mr. Zients and a chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

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