By Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON Dec 17 The Obama administration on
Tuesday announced the appointment of a former Microsoft Corp
executive to oversee its revamped HealthCare.gov website and
expand on technology improvements achieved by the site's
outgoing czar, Jeffrey Zients.
Kurt DelBene, who recently retired as head of the software
company's Microsoft Office unit, will spearhead efforts to
continue the overhaul of the website, which was set up to
provide federally subsidized health insurance to millions of
consumers in 36 states.
DelBene, who starts his new job on Wednesday, takes over
only days before a Dec. 23 deadline for people to sign up for
coverage to begin on Jan. 1, which could cause traffic on the
newly revamped site to soar.
Zients, a longtime aide to President Barack Obama, oversaw a
five-week emergency fix that turned HealthCare.gov from a
crippled online portal to one that now operates smoothly for
most visitors. Zients, an expert in crisis management, starts a
new job as top economic adviser at the White House in January.
While the consumer-facing part of the website has improved,
officials are still racing to finish critical "back end"
features. Missing pieces include software that will enable the
federal government to verify enrollment data with issuers and to
pay plans billions of dollars in federal subsidies on behalf of
lower income enrollees.
The administration is also trying to fix some troubling
glitches. An official said on Dec. 6 that about 10 percent of
applications to the main website are not being accurately
"Kurt will ... focus on increasing system stability,
redundancy and capacity, and building on improvements to the
user interface, while continuing to prioritize security and
privacy issues," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary
Kathleen Sebelius said in a blog posting.
DelBene is expected to remain in the job at least through
the first half of 2014.
The website's ability to handle rising volumes this month
and early in 2014 could have far-reaching implications for
Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress. They have been
battered by Republican criticism over the botched website and
other issues related to Obamacare, as attention turns to next
November's mid-term election battle for control of Congress.
A new Reuters-Ipsos poll of 1,558 American adults, conducted
Dec. 13-17, showed that 55 percent disapprove of Obama's job as
president. But on the question of which party has a better plan
for healthcare, Democrats still outpace Republicans 29 percent
to 19 percent. The data has an overall margin of error of 2.8
As head of Microsoft's most profitable division,
DelBene was in charge of providing complex software and
services, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the Microsoft
Exchange email system.
Under DelBene's leadership, Microsoft moved toward making
the Office suite of applications available online, a departure
for the company.
DelBene, husband of U.S. Representative Suzan DelBene of
Washington, is volunteering, a White House official said. He
will return his entire compensation, which was not released, to
DelBene earned $7.59 million at Microsoft during the
company's fiscal year that ended June 30, 2013.
Zients was brought in two months ago to take charge of the
contractors working on HealthCare.gov.
The website could not handle traffic when it launched on
Oct. 1, slowing enrollments and creating a political
embarrassment for Obama, who had promised a smooth roll-out for
his signature health reforms. While now functioning better, it
continues to have problems.
Sebelius credited several Democratic senators, including
Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and
Chris Coons of Delaware, with the idea of keeping a point person
in place for the website.
DelBene's appointment was lauded by Microsoft founder Bill
Gates and Chief Executive Steve Ballmer.
"Kurt is a talented and capable executive, with a track
record of successfully managing complex large-scale technology
projects," Gates said in a statement provided by the Department
of Health and Human Services.
DelBene, whose last official day Microsoft was on Monday,
started work at the company in 1992.
He previously worked as an associate at consultant McKinsey
& Co and on the technical staff at telecommunications pioneer