The official most responsible for the rollout of the Obamacare health-insurance exchange blamed a "subset" of outside contractors for the website woes, not her staff, in testimony before a U.S. House committee.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, led by Marilyn Tavenner, was tasked with building and running the site, which is supposed to let people compare and buy private medical coverage, with the help of federal tax credits. Tavenner did apologize to the American people, saying the experience with the exchange site so far "is not acceptable."
"CMS used private sector contractors, just as it does to administer aspects of Medicare," Tavenner told the House Ways and Means Committee today. "Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for healthcare.gov have not met expectations."
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Tavenner also seemed to be setting expectations lower for Obamacare, telling the panel that "we expect the initial numbers to be small."
An internal memo obtained by The Associated Press shows the administration expected nearly 500,000 people to gain coverage just in October, the program's first month. Tavenner repeatedly declined to cite enrollment numbers, saying they will not be provided until mid-November.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, drew his own conclusion. He told Tavenner that by his math, the administration appears headed for less than a fourth of its October sign-up estimate.
While Tavenner said the website is being fixed, she refused to give House members information on how many people have enrolled through the exchange, which is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. She said the "initial wave of interest "stressed" the system, leaving some customers unable to complete applications.
"Frankly, three years should have been enough" to get the website working properly," Camp said. "Had the administration provided more forthcoming answers and shared in a transparent manner the reality of the challenges it was encountering in the implementation process, I suspect many of these glitches could have been avoided."
The consumer website has been plagued by delays, error messages, and hang-ups that have prevented some people from completing applications. About four days ago, the data hub that routes tax information to websites run by the federal government and 14 states lost connectivity after workers tried to replace a broken networking component.
Tavenner offered a personal apology to "the millions of Americans" who haven't been able to use the exchange.
"I want to apologize to you that the website is not working as well as it should," she said. "I want to assure you that HealthCare.gov can and will be fixed."
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, is scheduled to appear tomorrow before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Tavenner's agency is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Sebelius, who some Republicans have said should resign, last week blamed the website failures partly on a high volume of consumer traffic and said "in an ideal world" there would have been more testing of the software before the site opened.
President Barack Obama last week appointed Jeffrey Zients, his incoming chief economic adviser, to first advise the health department on fixes to the system before taking on his other job. The federal site, which Zients declared "fixable," serves consumers in 36 states, including Texas and Florida. He said the site should be running smoothly by the end of November.
That would mean two months when the consumer website at the heart of the $1.4 trillion U.S. healthcare overhaul won't be fully operating.
Websites run by most of the 14 states that chose to build their own have performed better than the federal site, though all of the sites rely to some extent on the data hub, which was built by UnitedHealth Group's Quality Software Services unit.
Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, said Republicans have "erected hurdles" to the exchange rollout, and that some states are operating their exchanges with few problems.
"The reality is, the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans are failing to work on with Democrats, is working quite effectively in states running the marketplaces," Levin said in his written testimony for the hearing. "The website for the federal insurance marketplace must be fixed and it is being fixed."
The Obama administration named UnitedHealth's QSSI as the system's lead contractor, taking over a decision-making role formerly filled by officials at Tavenner's agency.
While open enrollment runs through March 31, the application deadline to have coverage effective Jan. 1 is Dec. 15.
The rocky debut of the insurance exchange is cutting at the heart of the Affordable Care Act, Obama's domestic policy centerpiece designed to offer medical coverage to most of the nation's 48 million uninsured. Now, after three years of trying to dismantle the law generally known as Obamacare, Republican lawmakers are seizing on the website's flawed debut.
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Even some Democrats who support the law are calling for delay. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who voted for the health law in 2010, is among 10 Democratic U.S. senators who wrote the administration last week to ask that the six-month enrollment period be lengthened. The call for the delay is linked to provisions in the law that require all health plans to be compliant by January with new regulations, including a prohibition against charging sick people more than healthy customers. Plans must also provide expanded benefits including free preventative care.
Sebelius said last week that extending the first enrollment period for the law could complicate 2015 planning for health insurers, who must submit rates for the second year of the program just months after the first enrollment ends.
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