Obamacare Chief on the Hot Seat over Website Debacle
Policy + Politics

Obamacare Chief on the Hot Seat over Website Debacle

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Marilyn Tavenner, the government’s chief overseer of Obamacare, thought the online roll out of the health care insurance program would go relatively smoothly – until the roof caved in on Oct. 1.

Although executives of five major contractors told a House committee last week that they had warned officials about software problems and that “end to end” testing of the extraordinarily complex website did not occur until two weeks before the formal launch, Tavenner indicated the crisis came as a surprise to her.

As recently as a month ago, she had predicted the Affordable Care Act would have a smooth launch, according to The Washington Post.


But this morning, testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee, Tavenner was apologetic, although she provided little new information to explain what went wrong. Nor would she say how many Americans have been able to enroll to date for insurance coverage through the crippled system.

“We know consumers are eager to purchase this coverage, and to the millions of Americans who attempted to use HealthCare.gov to shop and enroll in health care coverage, I want to apologize to you that the website does not work as well as it should,” she said Tuesday morning. “We know how desperately you need affordable coverage... HealthCare.gov can and will be fixed and we are working around the clock.”

Tavenner told some incredulous House members, “The system is working – just not as smoothly and consistently as we would like.”

Tavenner is the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency with direct responsibility for building and launching the Obamacare site. The former nurse and Virginia hospital executive who can claim House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) as a friend, she was the first administration official to answer questions before Congress about the rollout fiasco.

In a way, Tavenner is just a warm-up for a Hill appearance Wednesday by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – the target of many Republicans who have called for her resignation.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and other GOP committee members used Tavenner’s appearance to criticize the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have repeatedly sought to defund or derail the program. They say Obamacare is seriously undercutting the economy and hurting many constituents.

“While a website can eventually be fixed, the widespread problems with Obamacare cannot,” Camp said. “Almost daily, we hear of reports of Obamacare increasing costs, harming job creation and forcing Americans off their current plan. These problems cannot be fixed through a ‘tech surge,’ and they are not just a glitch in someone’s health care coverage or job.”

Camp added, “The Treasury Inspector General warned in August that it was not confident about the IRS’s ability to protect confidential taxpayer information or to prevent fraud, and neither am I. On top of that, the exchange does not give individuals the information they need to make an informed health care decisions.”


Democrats agreed the system as launched was a technical fiasco and requires a quick fix to make sure the government can achieve its target of enrolling 7 million uninsured Americans by early next year. But they lashed out at Camp, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other GOP critics for being more interested in trying to destroy Obamacare than in fixing the problems.

“We start this hearing facing a basic reality,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the committee. “Democrats want to make the Affordable Care Act Work. Republicans don’t.”

One overriding question is how much high-ranking officials like Tavenner knew about the technical problems in advance and why they nonetheless went ahead with the launch. The five government contractors who testified last week said they had flagged for CMS officials some problems with the software that powers the website, but that the administration decided to move ahead anyway.

Under questioning today, Tavenner acknowledged there were several features on the site that she thought should be delayed until bugs were worked out, but that “I did not ever argue that we should delay the exchange.”

“We knew all along that there would be – as with any new website – some individual glitches we would have to work out,” she said. “But the volume issue and the creation of account issues were not anticipated and obviously took us by surprise.”

Sebelius has yet to explain why she discounted warnings about flaws in the system before the launch. And the White House has said that the president was unaware of the problems until after the disastrous launch. However, Tavenner said today that she had talked with “several” White House staffers about some of the technical problems before the launch, but declined to say immediately who they were.

Last week, the administration brought in former White House budget chef Jeffrey Zients to oversee an overhaul of the website to get it fully operational by the end of November. The administration also announced on Friday that the contracting firm Quality Software Services, a Columbia-based company owned by UnitedHealth Group that built part of the site, would take on a new role as HealthCare.gov’s general contractor, overseeing efforts to fix the website’s problems.