Health care website firms on hot seat in House today

WASHINGTON — Contractors who built the troubled health care website are testifying Thursday that confusion between the tech firms and high demand for insurance led to problems with the site.


But Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, says in her prepared remarks before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the Obama administration ultimately bears responsibility.

"The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have the overall responsibility for administering the Federal Exchange Program System," Campbell wrote in her testimony, saying the federal agency "serves the important role of systems integrator or quarterback on this project and is the ultimate responsible party" for the website's performance.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing comes as complaints about the website grow louder in Congress, threatening to tarnish the legacy of President Obama's signature domestic achievement. Problems with the online health care exchanges, aimed at helping people find insurance, were apparent as open enrollment began under the Affordable Care Act on Oct. 1. The mandate that people obtain health insurance is a key tenet of the law.

Obama's Democratic allies, including senators up for re-election next year, are joining Republicans in calling for an extension to the open enrollment period and clarification about when penalties will be levied on people who don't obtain insurance as the law requires.

"Did they not know? Or did they not disclose?" committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said, suggesting the Obama administration is "allergic to transparency."

"This is not about blame," he said. "It's about accountability."

The White House said Wednesday night that it will soon issue policy guidance making clear that people who sign up for insurance by March 31, 2014, will not face a penalty. Still, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., said he would seek a delay in the individual mandate — a non-starter for the White House — and a waiver for those who are unable to sign up through the online exchanges.

Obama has made fixing the health care website a top priority, as he and the administration seek to emphasize that the 2010 law is more than a piece of technology. The president has launched what he is calling a "tech surge" and tapped Jeffrey Zients, a former deputy White House budget director, to spearhead the effort to fix the troubled website.

The administration also created a series of "alpha teams" with insurance companies, after Sebelius met with industry executives and White House officials Wednesday. Sebelius said the teams will "iron out kinks in both the (enrollment) forms and in direct enrollment."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the Affordable Care Act is "an enormous success, with one obvious problem," which is the

"If we want this law to work, we've got to make it right, we've got to fix it, not what the Republicans are trying to do: nix it and repeal it," said Waxman.

Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, said another contractor was responsible for the technology that allowed users to create new accounts and which caused the initial bottleneck issues on the site. She called the tech glitches a "front-door problem," stressing that the online exchange has steadily improved over the past two weeks.

Officials from Optum/QSSI, Equifax Workforce Solutions and Serco are also testifying alongside Campbell. The GOP-led committee had wanted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to appear, but she cited a scheduling conflict and will appear next week.

While Democrats such as Waxman stressed the benefits of the health care law, the concern about the long-term impact of the website's problems is apparent.

Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, the most vulnerable Senate Democrat on the ballot in 2014, joined Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in calling on the White House to extend open enrollment beyond March 31 and to provide guidance on penalities for the uninsured.

"I believe, given the technical issues, it makes sense to extend the time for people to sign up," Pryor said in a statement Wednesday. "In addition, the administration should state clearly how the enforcement mechanism will work if people can't sign up in time."

Contributing: David Jackson

USA Today Original Article

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