(Adds quotes and details on Americans losing about insurance
By David Morgan and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON Oct 29 The head of the U.S. agency
responsible for the new government-run healthcare website
apologized on Tuesday for problems people have had obtaining
insurance, but quickly came under fire about reports that
thousands are losing their current coverage plans.
Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the U.S. Centers for
Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), told a congressional
hearing that the website faces "complex technical issues" four
weeks after it opened and pointed a finger at contractors and
traffic of 20 million unique visitors as culprits.
"We know that consumers are eager to purchase this coverage.
And to the millions of Americans who have attempted to use
Healthcare.gov to shop and enroll in healthcare coverage, I want
to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as
it should," Tavenner said.
But the apology did little to protect Tavenner against
criticism from Republicans and Democrats.
"The fact is that the administration really failed these
Americans," said Representative Allyson Schwartz, a Pennsylvania
"The administration has failed to properly test the website
... failed to take action to recognize and fix these problems
long the way," Schwartz said. "That initial experience has
really done some damage to Americans' confidence in this
website, in the marketplace and even potentially in the options
that they would have available to get health coverage."
Republicans, who saw Tavenner's appearance as a new
opportunity to discredit President Barack Obama's signature
domestic policy, took her to task over reports that hundreds of
thousands who now have health insurance could see their current
policies end and their costs rise dramatically.
Private insurers have informed policy holders in the
individual and small group markets that their plans will end
this year due to Obamacare, which requires plans to meet higher
benefit standards. Anecdotal evidence shows that some consumers
are being asked to pay much higher premiums.
Republicans seized on the issue as evidence that belies
Obama's longstanding promise that people with insurance would
not be forced out of their policies as a result of the 2010
Affordable Care Act.
"If you like your healthcare plan, you'll be able to keep
your healthcare plan, period," he said to the American Medical
Association on June 15, 2009.
"Can you understand the level of frustration and concern
about what many Americans perceive to be a false claim from the
administration?" Illinois Republican Peter Roskam asked at
Tavenner said the president's statement was true, because
the healthcare reform law allowed plans to be "grandfathered"
against reforms requiring new plans to carry broader benefits
and relinquish discriminatory practices against people with
pre-existing conditions. She said the changes also do not affect
most people with private insurance, who have coverage through
their employers or through Medicare.
Under questioning from Republican Representative Tim Griffin
of Arkansas, Tavenner blamed health insurers for policy
cancellations: "Issuers have always had the ability to stop
offering a policy. Those issuers were grandfathered in, in 2010,
and they're choosing to make a different decision now."
Tavenner's testimony to the House Ways & Means Committee was
the Obama administration's first formal statement to Congress
about the website's challenges. Tavenner's boss, Health and
Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is scheduled to
testify before another House oversight panel on Wednesday.
The website is a lynchpin of President Barack Obama's
program, commonly called Obamacare, to provide healthcare
coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
Republicans seized on the website's troubles as evidence of
broader problems with the law and renewed their call for a delay
in the federal mandate that most Americans obtain insurance for
2014 or pay a penalty.
Republicans hoped to show that the White House pressured CMS
to go ahead with the launch despite concerns about glitches.
Tavenner told lawmakers that pre-launch testing showed no
sign of the huge problems that were to come. She said she never
argued for delaying Healthcare.gov but decided to delay less
essential elements including a Spanish language service now
expected to be deployed next month. Tavenner said she then
informed Sebelius and White House staff of her decision.
"I'm in charge of the program," she said.
Representatives from Obama's Democratic Party said
Republicans were determined to kill the law rather than finding
solutions that would enable millions of uninsured Americans in
36 states to sign up for subsidized health coverage. Online
marketplaces built by 14 states and the District of Columbia
have performed more smoothly.
CONTRACTORS UNDER FIRE
In written testimony for the hearing, Tavenner, a nurse and
former hospital company executive, was at odds with sworn
testimony from two contractors who told the House Energy and
Commerce Committee last week that CMS bears ultimate
responsibility for the website's performance.
"CMS has a track record of successfully overseeing the many
contractors our programs depend on to function. Unfortunately, a
subset of those contracts for Healthcare.gov have not met
expectations," Tavenner told the Ways and Means Committee, one
of at least three Republican-controlled House panels
investigating the problem-plagued debut of Obamacare.
She said specifically that CMS has had "some issues with
timing of delivery" involving lead Obamacare contractor CGI
Federal, a unit of Canada's CGI Group Inc. "But we're working
with them," she said.
Executives from CGI and Quality Software Services Inc
(QSSI), a unit of health insurer UnitedHealth Group,
blamed CMS for a lack of system testing and a decision to
prevent online visitors from shopping for insurance without
first creating an account on the site. The last-minute change
may have contributed to huge bottlenecks as millions of visitors
swamped the site.
Tavenner said in her written testimony that "the initial
wave of interest stressed the account service, resulting in many
consumers experiencing difficulty signing up, while those who
were able to sign up sometimes had problems."
QSSI also said it had concerns about performance risks
related to the lack of testing and kept the agency informed
throughout the project.
Representative Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways & Means
Committee, led the Republican criticism on Tuesday.
"Frankly, three years should have been enough. And had the
administration provided more forthcoming answers and shared, in
a transparent manner, the reality of the challenges it was
encountering in the implementation process, I suspect many of
these glitches could have been avoided," Camp said.