"A longer testing period might have allowed us to prioritize and address more of these problems before the launch date. Time and ultimate success will tell whether the decision to purchase off-the-shelf software and employ multiple contractor entities were good or bad decisions."
In early 2012, the state gave a $71 million contract to develop the website to a Noridian-led team that included Curam Software, IBM and Connecture. To save time in creating the exchange, the Maryland legislature exempted the contract from the normal procurement process, and North Dakota-based Noridian outscored three other bidders.
Sharfstein said Noridian will likely remain at work in its Linthicum offices beyond its contract's year-end expiration. The company has already been paid about $57 million but the state contract allows penalties for delays. State officials declined to comment on whether any penalties will be sought.
Noridian is ultimately responsible for delivering the system, Sharfstein said. EngagePoint, which is based in Calverton, was not included in the original contract and appeared to have been hired without the exchange's knowledge, officials said.
The state first learned of the companies' "deep strains" in the three months before the website launched, according to documents in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The issues disputed included accounting, project management, intellectual property and payment.
Emails offer a glimpse at how their differences affected efforts to build the site and then fix post-launch problems. Pearce repeatedly questioned the contractors' commitment to the project after Gov. Martin O'Malley announced on national TV that Maryland's site would go live on time.
On Sept. 22, after Sen. Barbara Mikulski echoed the governor in publicly applauding Maryland's readiness, Pearce wrote the contractors: "It's time to get this right. Now. Period."
Noridian was also criticizing the subcontractor it hired. On Sept. 25, Noridian's project manager wrote to Goel, complaining that EngagePoint refused to perform critical work: "EngagePoint is responsible for 'designing and implementing [an exchange] system,'" the project manager wrote.
The 8 a.m. launch was supposed to allow the estimated 800,000 uninsured Marylanders to sign in and browse 45 plans from six insurers. Officials had warned of "bumps in the road," but the site crashed in minutes.
The state provided few emails from the first day. In one, contractors said they would work on the firewall; Sharfstein said later in an interview that it was eventually altered to allow more users onto the site.
Problems persisted the next day. Pearce repeatedly asked for updates, but the answers appeared unsatisfactory, emails show.
"As the executives in charge of this program, I would like to understand from you exactly what is happening with the project and what you are doing to address the issues," she wrote to the contractors at 7:56 a.m. on Oct. 2. By 4:10 p.m., she questioned why 85,000 people had hit the "get started" button, but there fewer than 500 accounts had been created.
About a half-hour later, she wrote to the contractors, "Can you please provide an update on what is going on right now? Who is on site? What has anyone learned?"
Some of the companies' emails focused on achievements rather than dwelling on worsening problems.
Noridian CEO Tom McGraw wrote to state officials on Oct. 4, "We have seen increases in all aspects of the system performance over the last several hours and anticipate that these will start showing in the next report."
But four days later McGraw notified state officials that the project manager was being replaced.
Meanwhile, Marylanders like Luke Goembel were stymied by a host of problems that included frozen screens, problems with verification and difficulty creating accounts.
When the website opened, the Baltimore scientist tried to buy insurance for his family, but got an error message. Three days later, Goembel got a message to call customer service.
Goembel tried the website again that day, but says that after entering information about his identity, the site froze. Later he got a "server error" message. And still he had no online account.