Official apologizes; website problems 'took us by surprise'
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration's lead official on the problem-plagued health insurance marketplace apologized at a congressional hearing Tuesday for its poor performance but said the setback "took us by surprise."
In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the inability of the Healthcare.gov website to establish individual user accounts and handle the initial volume of users shortly after open enrollment began Oct. 1 "was not anticipated" and "did not show up in testing."
"To the millions of Americans who've attempted to use Healthcare.gov to shop and enroll in health coverage, I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should," Tavenner testified. "We know how desperately you need affordable coverage. I want to assure you that Healthcare.gov can and will be fixed."
The hearing offered the first opportunity for Congress to formally question an administration official about the botched website rollout.
Tavenner repeatedly refused to provide information about how many people have been able to sign up for coverage on the website, telling committee members those numbers would be released in mid-November.
As with most oversight hearings that deal with any aspect of the Affordable Care Act, Tuesday's session often drifted into emotional political arguments about the merits of the contentious health law and the intent of Republicans to kill it.
"The flaw is not the website," said Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas). "The flaw is the law itself."
"The problems don't stop at the technical failures of the website," added Rep. Sam Johnson (R., Texas). "The real problem stems from the colossal failure to deliver what the law promised to the American people."
Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights movement, likened the Republican attacks on the health law to those of Southern lawmakers in the 1950s who supported "nullification" and "massive resistance" efforts to oppose federal desegregation laws.
In a dais-slapping address, Lewis accused the GOP of a "deliberate and systematic attempt" to keep people from getting health care.
At one point, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D., N.J.) rose from his seat, pointed directly at Rep. Tim Griffin (R., Ark.) and began loudly questioning the veracity of Griffin's assertion that House Republicans had presented a viable alternative to the Affordable Care Act.
"After what we've gone through in the last 31/2 years, you can sit there and say that you had a legitimate alternative?" Pascrell said. "We've gone through 44 votes, 48 votes now, of you trying to dismantle this legislation. You call that cooperation? I don't."
Tavenner confirmed that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services badly underestimated the volume of users who would try to access the marketplace website Oct. 1. She said prelaunch stress and load testing simulated usage that was projected to be three times the volume of users on the Medicare.gov website.
But more than 2.8 million people visited the Healthcare.gov website Oct. 1. That was three times the traffic to the site after it was redesigned in June and seven times more users than had ever been on the Medicare.gov website at any one time in history, Tavenner told reporters Oct. 1, the opening day.
In spite of the problems, Tavenner insisted the site was functioning and improvements were being felt every day.
"The system is working," she said. "It's just not working as smoothly or consistently as we want."
Democrats on the committee also leveled criticism. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz of Pennsylvania called the rollout "inexcusable and unacceptable." She said the experience had damaged national confidence in the health law.
Tavenner said the "failures in the initial rollout" were the reason that a private contractor, Quality Software Services Inc., had been made project manager for the site-repair effort. Quality Software is the same company that designed the account-creation application that malfunctioned during the rollout.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.