Obama's tech expert becomes target over healthcare website woes
(Reuters) - Todd Park has gone from steering his healthcare information technology company through a blockbuster IPO to occasionally sleeping on a mat in his office while working to repair the troubled new U.S. government healthcare website.
Park, the chief technology officer for the White House and a top advisor to President Barack Obama, now finds himself among a handful of officials with targets on their backs as Republicans try to root out who is responsible for this month's glitch-ridden rollout of Healthcare.gov.
Five years ago, Park was a private-sector tech success story having led his company to an initial public offering and starting a second one that was attracting millions of dollars in venture capital.
The 40-year-old helped build the original Healthcare.gov website in 90 days in 2010 when he was chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. The website then provided information about public and private insurance programs, sorted by zipcode.
The White House trotted him out in July to talk up the new version, which is designed to be the main portal for millions of uninsured Americans to buy coverage through federal exchanges, an important part of Obama's signature domestic policy achievement, the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
"I've taken a look at the early prototypes. They're incredibly impressive. And the teams are using all kinds of advanced technology to make sure that that experience will only help insurance," Park said in a CNBC TV interview in July.
But the exchanges' debut on October 1 was anything but impressive, beset by technical glitches. Three weeks later, many people are still unable to sign on and enroll.
Park, the son of Korean immigrants who grew up in Ohio and earned an economics degree from Harvard, has kept a low profile despite being part of what the government described as a "tech surge" racing to fix the website's problems.
An administration source said, however, that Park's work has been so demanding that he has on occasion slept on a mat in his office.
His direct role in Healthcare.gov is unclear - as is the role of other White House and health department officials. The administration's lack of transparency has angered Republicans and some Democrats trying to get answers about who is responsible for the troubled rollout and who will repair it.
REPUBLICAN DEMANDS PARK DOCUMENTS
At the first oversight hearing called by Republicans on Thursday, U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan criticized the administration for being "allergic to transparency."
And at least one powerful Republican has set his sights on Park.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa this week asked Park and White House Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel to hand over documents about their involvement in the website's woes.
"You surely maintained significant involvement in the oversight and development of Obamacare's critical information technology infrastructure," Issa said in a letter.
The White House declined to make Park available for an interview. In a statement, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said, "Todd's infectious passion for public service, tireless work ethic and technology expertise and experience make him a huge asset to our White House team."
Park now draws a salary of $165,300, significantly less than his $270,000 base salary at his Boston-based company, Athenahealth in 2008. The amount does not include the 5.4 percent of the company, then worth $570 million, he owned at the time of its initial public offering in 2007. The company now has a market capitalization of more than $5 billion.
After graduating from Harvard with a degree in economics in 1994, Kim first worked for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton before he and a fellow consultant, Jonathan Bush, decided to try becoming healthcare entrepreneurs.
What started as a maternity care business became focused on medical management software and related services.
Brandon Hull, co-founder of Cardinal Partners, one of Athenahealth's backers who still sits on the board, said Park can often convey ideas with passion. Hull recalled sitting in the audience at a Philadelphia health conference several years ago while Park, striding across the stage during a presentation, accidentally fell off, mid-speech. He quickly surfaced and climbed back on stage to finish his talk, Hull said.
In early 2008, Park co-founded Castlight, a company that provides tailored data about healthcare costs. In 2011, it was No. 1 on The Wall Street Journal's list of "The Top 50 Venture-Backed Companies."
"When we started Castlight, people said, 'Oh, you can't get pricing data,'" said Bryan Roberts, one of Park's co-founders. "He loves to solve problems that other people think can't be solved."
Park was a donor to Obama's 2008 election campaign, giving a total of $33,100 to Obama and the Democratic National Convention, according to the Open Secrets non-profit organization that tracks campaign contributions.
He was recommended for his current job by Aneesh Chopra, Obama's first chief technical officer. Chopra told Reuters that it would have been inappropriate for Park as a political appointee to be deeply involved in activities like contract procurement and project management of the new Healthcare.gov.
David Brailer, health Information Technology chief for the Bush Administration for two years, also said Park's job would have been removed from the nuts-and-bolts of the contract.
But Brailer, who said he thinks "very highly" of Park, said that does not mean he will be protected from Republicans and some Democrats who say that someone needs to be held accountable for the website fiasco.
"I have no doubt he's probably going to be one of the people they're trying to blame for this," Brailer said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Sarah McBride; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Grant McCool)