Republicans press U.S. officials over Obamacare snags


By David Morgan

WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Republicans in Congresschastised President Barack Obama's top health adviser onThursday for declining to testify before an oversight panelabout problems in rolling out the president's signaturehealthcare program known as Obamacare.

Less than a day after Congress ended a 16-day partialgovernment shutdown precipitated by Republican demands to delayor defund Obamacare, they sent a letter to Health and HumanServices Secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanding she makeofficials available for the Oct. 24 hearing.

The online insurance exchanges that are a central part ofObamacare rolled out on Oct. 1 despite the shutdown but havebeen hobbled by technical difficulties that Sebelius has saidare being fixed.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing is titled: "Implementation Failures: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose?"

The letter from majority members of the committee said theyinvited Sebelius on Oct. 11 to appear at the hearing, only tolearn on Wednesday that she would not attend. The administrationhas not agreed to provide other administration officials, theletter added.

"It's well past time for the administration to be straightand transparent with the American people," said a separatestatement by Republican Representative Fred Upton, who chairsthe panel.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokeswomanJoanne Peters said: "We are in close communication with thecommittee and have expressed our desire to be responsive totheir request."

A spokeswoman for the panel's Republican majority did notrespond to a Reuters inquiry about whether subpoenas would beissued by the committee.

Upton said top administration officials had previously saidthat everything was on track, but the broad technologicalfailures revealed that was not the case. "Either theadministration was not ready for launch, or it was not up to thejob," he said.

Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act isexpected to provide private health coverage to an estimated 7million uninsured Americans through the new online marketplacesthat opened for enrollment in all 50 states on Oct. 1.

But the website, the administration's onlineportal for consumers in 36 states, was hobbled by technicalissues - including error messages, garbled text and delaysloading pages - that administration officials partly blame on anunexpectedly high volume of 14.6 million visitors in its first10 days.

Sebelius recently appeared on the cable-television comedyprogram, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" for an interview thatfocused on the website's problems.

But HHS and the White House have largely declined todisclose information about the problems plaguing the federalmarketplace's information technology system, which cost nearly$400 million to build, according to a report by the watchdogGovernment Accountability Office.

"This is wholly unacceptable. Secretary Sebelius had timefor Jon Stewart, and we expect her to have time for Congress,"Upton said.

Upton's panel is one of at least three House committeesexpected to hold hearings as part of a new Republican plan toattack the healthcare reform's weaknesses, beginning with theproblem-plagued technology behind its launch.

The oversight is expected to span the cost of new insuranceplans under the healthcare law, online security, fraud, the roleof the Internal Revenue Service and the fate of consumers whoare unable to enroll in coverage in the coming weeks, accordingto congressional aides.

"It's not just a bumpy rollout. We're crossing a bridge witha warning sign that says: BRIDGE OUT," said RepublicanRepresentative Tim Murphy, who chairs the House Energy andCommerce panel's health subcommittee and plans to hold his ownhearings.

"We'll be trying to get people from the administration totell us whether they were pretending everything was OK or wasthere an internal cover-up or did they just not know?" he added.

Oversight is also not the only strategy Republicans areplanning.

House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement thatRepublicans will rely on "smart, targeted strikes" aimed atsplitting Obama's support in Congress. His office did notelaborate.

But strategists say Republicans plan to use newly begunbudget talks to jettison provisions of the law that are alsounpopular with Democrats, possibly including a $29 billion taxon medical devices and a panel to control costs within theMedicare program for the elderly and disabled.

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