Lawmakers: Sebelius failed at government website projects prior to serving in Obama administration

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
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Obama administration Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ failure at designing websites to provide government services began during her term as governor of Kansas, long before the Obamacare website debacle, Kansas political insiders told The Daily Caller.

Sebelius oversaw numerous costly and disastrous government website projects during her six-year governorship (2003-2009), including a failed update of the Department of Labor’s program to provide unemployment pay and other services and similar updates pertaining to the Department of Administration and the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) services.

The Department of Labor’s overhaul of its computer programs was a notable boondoggle, according to 14-year former Kansas state senator and former state Labor Secretary Karin Brownlee.

“In the Kansas Senate, I chaired the Commerce committee. We had oversight over the Department of Labor. For years, we watched as the Department of Labor under Sebelius worked on that computer program. After seven years and $50 million, something should work,” Brownlee told TheDC.

“In Kansas if you have a 40 or 50 million dollar project, that’s a lot of money,” Brownlee said, noting that the Labor Department project was funded by federal money while other Sebelius website projects sucked up state taxpayer dollars. “They started and stopped that project with at least 3 different major contractors.”

When Brownlee was appointed to head the state’s Department of Labor under new Republican governor Sam Brownback in 2011, she was tasked with cleaning up Sebelius’ technical mess.

“When I walked in the door at Labor [the computer update] was half-done. There were about 240 errors in work-around. It was not functional,” Brownlee said.

“The agency was spending more than $1 million per month on contractors and other things. So as soon as we found out how much was going out per month we had to shut that down. That wasn’t workable,” Brownlee said. “In the private sector, that would never be acceptable.” (RELATED: GOP senator to Sebelius: RESIGN)

“The computer [program update] was supposed to help deliver unemployment insurance benefits, which is critical, obviously, during a recession, because unemployment was much higher at the time. But the agency kept hiring more people because the computer system didn’t work. The Obama administration provided the money to fund it, and the money ended when I got there so we had to downsize considerably,” Brownlee said. “I brought in a consultant who fixed everything so that what we had was somewhat usable.”

“To Brownback, it was important to him that things worked. The point of a computer system is not to have one in and of itself. It’s to facilitate services for constituents. And that’s impossible when the system doesn’t work,” Brownlee said.

Sebelius’ other government website projects, funded with state taxpayer money, also created considerable headaches.

“Under Sebelius there were a number of computer projects. At the Department of Administration, there was a SMART system for [tracking] financial data about agencies and a system for HR information. The performance on it was extremely poor. The Department of Revenue re-did their DMV programs. That started under Sebelius,” Brownlee said, adding that Brownback was “saddled with that [DMV] contract” when he took office.

Kansas constituents were left waiting days to obtain DMV services.

“In government, these computer transactions are a black hole for tens of millions of dollars,” Brownlee said. “People worked around it and worked the other way pretty much. I don’t know that [Sebelius] was ever personally held responsible for any of this…when you’re trying to serve your citizens somebody has to be responsible.”

Other lawmakers acknowledged the failures of Sebelius’ tech projects.

“We heard several excuses for IT failures under Sebelius. Especially towards the end of her administration. The legislature was often frustrated with the Labor Department, Department of Administration, and also Pharmacy claims. It was hard to get clear answers back then too,” Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab told The Daily Caller.

“We pretty much expected HealthCare.gov to fail, because she has a pattern of failing on these big initiatives. We thought that was why she was not nominated originally,” Schwab said.

Whether or not President Obama knew about Sebelius’ website track record when he put her in charge of overseeing the Obamacare website remains unclear.

“When you consider that Obamacare is the pinnacle of president Obama’s presidential career, why would he not have been informed?,” Brownlee said. “Why is it that the private sector can do these projects and do them in a timely way and they work and government can’t?”

The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services did not return requests for comment.

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