By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON Oct 27 Two months before the
troubled Oct. 1 launch of Obamacare exchanges, a key
administration official overseeing the program assured a
congressional oversight panel that work was on track to roll out
a tested website that would make it easy for Americans to enroll
in affordable health insurance coverage.
"This is a large and complicated endeavor that I am proud to
lead, and every decision is being made by my prior work
experience," Marilyn Tavenner testified on Aug. 1 before the
House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee,
describing the launch of the Healthcare.gov website.
Come Tuesday, the former nurse who heads the U.S. Centers
for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will again find herself
before a House committee - this time, to explain how
Healthcare.gov failed when the administration flipped the on
switch. She will face Republicans eager to prove, thus far
unsuccessfully, that the White House orchestrated decisions that
may have stalled the system.
Lawmakers on both sides of the partisan aisle are growing
increasingly impatient with website snafus that they say are
frustrating the public and adding to taxpayer costs. The White
House has scrambled to fix technical issues and disputes
Republican allegations that political motives were behind
changes in the website's function.
Tavenner's scheduled testimony before the House Ways and
Means Committee is expected to offer insight into the
decision-making. A key player, she was cleared to visit the
White House 425 times between December 2009 and June 2013,
including for several meetings with Obama himself, visitor logs
One Oval Office meeting with Obama in March would have
occurred as some technology officials in her agency publicly
fretted about the possibility that the complicated website would
malfunction, telling an insurance forum they were working to
Tavenner, 62, who was confirmed for her job by the Senate in
May, was optimistic about the rollout when questioned by
skeptical Republican senators at an April hearing.
Tavenner is expected to be a critical witness this week
because "she's more responsible for decisions made at CMS that
probably led to this disaster," said Joe Antos, a healthcare
analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute
A committee aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity,
said: "We expect her to be forthcoming. We think she'll be a
very serious witness, and she's certainly integral."
Tavenner appears one day before her boss, U.S. Health and
Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is due to testify
before another panel in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Committee aides hope that Tavenner can describe system
problems at the more complicated back end of the federal
marketplace, where consumers determine their eligibility for
premium subsidies and enroll in coverage. Aides and experts fear
new crippling problems could emerge as enrollment picks up in
November and early December.
There is also intense interest in Washington in learning who
decided at the last minute to deny visitors to Healthcare.gov
the ability to browse insurance plans without first creating a
website account. That decision is widely blamed for the
bottlenecks that helped paralyze the system as millions of
visitors flooded the marketplace in the first days of enrollment
and during the ensuing weeks.
"That (decision) had to be made at the highest possible
levels, meaning in my view the White House. That's a strategic
call about selling the reform," Antos said.
White House visitor logs, which provide a public record of
who visits with administration officials, have not yet been
released for the August period when potential problems with the
website launch may have been discussed.
Republicans also want to know who in the administration
decided to make Tavenner's agency the "quarterback" or system
integrator for the huge information technology system behind
Healthcare.gov. Analysts say that decision - rather than giving
the job to the private sector - also may have created problems.
Last week, the administration announced that it was handing
the job over to a private contractor as part of the effort to
fix the online enrollment system.
CMS, the agency that oversees the massive federal Medicare
and Medicaid programs, already had plenty to do before it took
charge of implementing Obamacare, the Senate's leading
Republican Mitch McConnell said in May, after voting against
Tavenner, who had served as acting administrator for more
than a year, was nonetheless easily confirmed by the Senate on a
91-7 vote. Promising to run the agency like a business, she won
accolades from leading Republicans who looked favorably on her
career as a nurse and later as an executive for Hospital
Corporation of America. She left HCA after 25 years to become
Virginia's health and human resources secretary.
Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a fellow
Virginian, introduced Tavenner at her Senate hearing. He said he
differed with Obama's healthcare policy, "but if there is anyone
that I trust to try and navigate the challenges, it is Marilyn
House Republican lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing are expected
to focus not just on the healthcare website, but on the
Affordable Care Act and its impact, aides said.
"The website is terrible ... but the real problem is the
law, which is causing people to lose coverage that they already
have," one Republican aide said.
Democrats will ask Tavenner what steps the administration
will take to fix the reported website problems, one House
Democratic aide said.
The Democrats may focus on positive experiences of some of
the 700,000 people who have filled out applications as a first
step toward enrollment, including some who have been denied
insurance previously because of pre-existing conditions, the
Democratic aide said.
Nonetheless, Democrats view the hearing as a largely
political event staged by Republicans as part of their continued
criticism of Obamacare, he said.
On Friday, aides to committee Republicans were reviewing
what Tavenner said on the record to Congress about the
healthcare website before it went live, and comparing that with
the actual rollout.