Obama turns to top aide for 'tech surge' to fix healthcare website

Reuters

* White House chooses insider for Healthcare.gov problems

* Republicans open investigation on rollout

By David Morgan and John Whitesides

WASHINGTON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama turnedto a trusted adviser on Tuesday to lead a "tech surge" aimed atrepairing the troubled launch of the government website at theheart of his signature healthcare law.

Jeffrey Zients, a former official of the Office ofManagement and Budget who will become head of the NationalEconomic Council in January, will provide short-term managementadvice on the project, said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary ofHealth and Human Services (HHS).

She said a team of experts and specialists drawn fromgovernment and industry, "including veterans of top SiliconValley companies," also would work to diagnose and fix theproblems that have plagued the rollout of Healthcare.gov sinceOct. 1 and drawn criticism from Republicans opposed to the law.

The websites, which Obama compared to online shopping sitessuch as Amazon.com, were meant to be the main vehicle forconsumers to check out prices and purchase the health insuranceoffered under the law.

The HHS said at the weekend it was launching a "tech surge"for the website, but neither the White House nor the healthdepartment has provided details about the cause of the problems,precisely what is being done to fix them and who exactly isdoing the fixing.

Obama's administration scheduled a briefing for Wednesdaywith Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, some ofwhom have expressed concern with the program's troubles.

One Democrat, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire,called for an extension of the "open enrollment" date for thosepurchasing insurance beyond the March 31 deadline because ofwhat she called the "incredibly frustrating and disappointing"experience people are having as they try to enroll.

The announcement that Zients would be involved underlinesObama's determination to put the website controversy behind him.Zients has 20 years of business experience as a CEO, managementconsultant and entrepreneur.

He helped the Obama administration figure out a solution forthe "cash for clunkers" car exchange program's website, whichcrashed repeatedly when it opened early in Obama's first term.

Republicans, long opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Actknown as "Obamacare," have seized on the information vacuumabout the website's problems to start their own investigation inCongress about the role of the White House.

CRITICISM OF DESIGN FEATURE

In a letter to two administration technology officers,Republicans on the House of Representatives Oversight andGovernment Reform Committee said their investigation alreadypoints to significant White House involvement in discussionsbetween the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) andthe website contractor, CGI Federal.

CGI officials have also told committee staff the widelycriticized design feature requiring visitors to create accountsbefore shopping for insurance was implemented in late August orearly September, barely a month before the Oct. 1 start of openenrollment.

The requirement contributed to a traffic bottleneck thatworsened underlying flaws in a system intended to serve millionsof Americans without healthcare insurance. The technologyproblems have frustrated attempts by many to sign on and allowedonly a trickle of enrollments.

"We are concerned that the administration requiredcontractors to change course late in the implementation processto conceal Obamacare's effect on increasing health insurancepremiums," said the letter authored by panel chairman DarrellIssa and four Republican subcommittee chairmen.

The committee probe, the second House Republicaninvestigation into Obamacare, follows the latest attempt by theparty to derail the law during a 16-day government shutdown inOctober.

Republicans, who view the law as an unwarranted expansion ofthe federal government, eventually dropped demands for delays orchanges to the healthcare law before they would support afederal funding bill and allowed the government to reopen.

Obama said on Monday he was frustrated by the website'sproblems. A prolonged delay in gettingHealthcare.gov to work could jeopardize White House efforts tosign up as many as 7 million people in 2014, the first full yearit takes effect.

CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The White House declined to directly address the Oct. 21letter to U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel andU.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

"It's not about, you know, who's to blame for glitches in awebsite. What we need to focus on is fixing those problems,making the information that the American people want availableto them in an efficient way. And that's what we're doing," WhiteHouse spokesman Jay Carney said.

Under Issa's leadership, the House oversight committee hasinvestigated the Obama administration on several issues sinceRepublicans took control of the chamber in the 2010 elections.

Last year, Issa accused Obama or his aides of obstructing aninvestigation into the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-runningprobe on the Arizona border with Mexico. He also spearheaded theHouse investigation of a 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomaticmission in Benghazi, Libya, and another into the InternalRevenue Service's handling of conservative non-profit groupsseeking tax-exempt status.

Issa's committee is asking VanRoekel and Park to provide alldocuments and communications that describe the federal system'sarchitecture and design, CMS' role as system integrator,problems relayed to the White House and the decision to requireaccount creation as a prerequisite to seeing insurance plans.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has started its owninvestigation and is scheduled to question Sebelius and severalcontractors at separate hearings within the next eight days.

Polls show that a narrow majority of Americans oppose thehealthcare law, and the flap over the launch of the insuranceexchanges has done little to change public opinion.

A Reuters/Ipsos online poll on Tuesday showed 54 percent ofAmericans opposed the law and 46 percent favored it. A poll froma month ago found similar percentages divided over the law.

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