Key U.S. official faces grilling over how Obamacare website became fiasco

Reuters

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Two months before thetroubled Oct. 1 launch of Obamacare exchanges, a keyadministration official overseeing the program assured acongressional oversight panel that work was on track to roll outa tested website that would make it easy for Americans to enrollin affordable health insurance coverage.

"This is a large and complicated endeavor that I am proud tolead, and every decision is being made by my prior workexperience," Marilyn Tavenner testified on Aug. 1 before theHouse of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee,describing the launch of the Healthcare.gov website.

Come Tuesday, the former nurse who heads the U.S. Centersfor Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will again find herselfbefore a House committee - this time, to explain howHealthcare.gov failed when the administration flipped the onswitch. She will face Republicans eager to prove, thus farunsuccessfully, that the White House orchestrated decisions thatmay have stalled the system.

Lawmakers on both sides of the partisan aisle are growingincreasingly impatient with website snafus that they say arefrustrating the public and adding to taxpayer costs. The WhiteHouse has scrambled to fix technical issues and disputesRepublican allegations that political motives were behindchanges in the website's function.

Tavenner's scheduled testimony before the House Ways andMeans Committee is expected to offer insight into thedecision-making. A key player, she was cleared to visit theWhite House 425 times between December 2009 and June 2013,including for several meetings with Obama himself, visitor logsshow.

One Oval Office meeting with Obama in March would haveoccurred as some technology officials in her agency publiclyfretted about the possibility that the complicated website wouldmalfunction, telling an insurance forum they were working toavert problems.

Tavenner, 62, who was confirmed for her job by the Senate inMay, was optimistic about the rollout when questioned byskeptical Republican senators at an April hearing.

Tavenner is expected to be a critical witness this weekbecause "she's more responsible for decisions made at CMS thatprobably led to this disaster," said Joe Antos, a healthcareanalyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institutethink tank.

A committee aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity,said: "We expect her to be forthcoming. We think she'll be avery serious witness, and she's certainly integral."

Tavenner appears one day before her boss, U.S. Health andHuman Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is due to testifybefore another panel in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Committee aides hope that Tavenner can describe systemproblems at the more complicated back end of the federalmarketplace, where consumers determine their eligibility forpremium subsidies and enroll in coverage. Aides and experts fearnew crippling problems could emerge as enrollment picks up inNovember and early December.

LAST-MINUTE DECISION

There is also intense interest in Washington in learning whodecided at the last minute to deny visitors to Healthcare.govthe ability to browse insurance plans without first creating awebsite account. That decision is widely blamed for thebottlenecks that helped paralyze the system as millions ofvisitors flooded the marketplace in the first days of enrollmentand during the ensuing weeks.

"That (decision) had to be made at the highest possiblelevels, meaning in my view the White House. That's a strategiccall about selling the reform," Antos said.

White House visitor logs, which provide a public record ofwho visits with administration officials, have not yet beenreleased for the August period when potential problems with thewebsite launch may have been discussed.

Republicans also want to know who in the administrationdecided to make Tavenner's agency the "quarterback" or systemintegrator for the huge information technology system behindHealthcare.gov. Analysts say that decision - rather than givingthe job to the private sector - also may have created problems.

Last week, the administration announced that it was handingthe job over to a private contractor as part of the effort tofix the online enrollment system.

CMS, the agency that oversees the massive federal Medicareand Medicaid programs, already had plenty to do before it tookcharge of implementing Obamacare, the Senate's leadingRepublican Mitch McConnell said in May, after voting againstTavenner's confirmation.

Tavenner, who had served as acting administrator for morethan a year, was nonetheless easily confirmed by the Senate on a91-7 vote. Promising to run the agency like a business, she won accolades from leading Republicans who looked favorably on hercareer as a nurse and later as an executive for HospitalCorporation of America. She left HCA after 25 years to becomeVirginia's health and human resources secretary.

Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a fellowVirginian, introduced Tavenner at her Senate hearing. He said hediffered with Obama's healthcare policy, "but if there is anyonethat I trust to try and navigate the challenges, it is MarilynTavenner."

House Republican lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing are expectedto focus not just on the healthcare website, but on theAffordable Care Act and its impact, aides said.

"The website is terrible ... but the real problem is thelaw, which is causing people to lose coverage that they alreadyhave," one Republican aide said.

Democrats will ask Tavenner what steps the administrationwill take to fix the reported website problems, one HouseDemocratic aide said.

The Democrats may focus on positive experiences of some ofthe 700,000 people who have filled out applications as a firststep toward enrollment, including some who have been deniedinsurance previously because of pre-existing conditions, theDemocratic aide said.

Nonetheless, Democrats view the hearing as a largelypolitical event staged by Republicans as part of their continuedcriticism of Obamacare, he said.

On Friday, aides to committee Republicans were reviewingwhat Tavenner said on the record to Congress about thehealthcare website before it went live, and comparing that withthe actual rollout.

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