From shutdown ashes, Republicans seek to expose Obamacare's flawed launch

Reuters

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - After a bruising defeat overObamacare in the government shutdown, Republicans hope to regainmomentum by exposing how President Barack Obama's administrationran aground trying to launch his signature healthcare reformlaw.

Three Republican-led committees in the House ofRepresentatives are investigating the technical flaws that havehobbled Healthcare.gov, a federal website meant to help millionsof Americans in 36 states sign up for health insurance benefits,since its launch on Oct. 1.

The administration says the site has been overwhelmed in thepast three weeks by interest from nearly 20 million people whohave exacerbated underlying problems with the system, addingthat it has brought in top technology experts to fix it.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will be the first tohold the administration and its contractors to account, with ahearing set on Thursday that will feature sworn testimony fromfour contractors including website developer CGI Federal.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton told Reuters the session wouldfocus on whether the contractors who built the site warned theU.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) abouttroubles ahead of the launch, and whether HHS made sufficientinquiries on how the work was progressing.

"Our goal is to get to the bottom of this," Upton said in aninterview.

He contends that the rollout failed because the administration delayed moving ahead with importantimplementation steps until after Obama emerged as victor in the2012 presidential election.

"It was a political decision, and that delay costeverything," he said.

Republicans also blame the site's problems on a design thatrequired users to create accounts and check their eligibilityfor government subsidies before showing them the cost of newinsurance plans and other details such as whether their doctorwould be included in coverage.

"They didn't want people to figure out that all these brokenpromises - whether keeping your physician or your plan or that(insurance) rates would go down instead of going up - theywanted to keep that all away from getting exposed. And thatdelay has cost them big in terms of having a successfulrollout," Upton said.

POLITICAL ADVANTAGE

Upton's panel will take sworn testimony from U.S. Health andHuman Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius six days after itquestions the contractors.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ChairmanDarrell Issa also is seeking answers about White Houseinvolvement in decisions about Healthcare.gov.

Meanwhile the House Ways and Means Committee has announcedan Oct. 29 hearing with Marilyn Tavenner, who heads the HHSagency overseeing implementation.

Republican lawmakers and congressional aides say theoversight push is part of an effort to regain the politicaladvantage on Obamacare after a 16-day government shutdown inwhich the party failed to derail the law while driving their ownpoll numbers sharply lower.

They said the plan is to focus on specific weaknesses in thelaw including the troubled rollout, the law's effect onhealthcare costs, concerns about identify theft, subsidy fraudand reduced hours for workers. The aim is to highlight problemsthey say the Affordable Care Act poses for ordinary Americans.

Tea Party movement supporters say they will continue topress for delays in the individual mandate and a measure thatwould deny federal healthcare subsidies for congressional staff.

By contrast, the Democratic-controlled Senate has called nohearings on Obamacare so far. But an administration official wasscheduled to brief House Democrats on the rollout on Wednesday.

"While we appreciate House Republicans' newfound interest inthe implementation of health reform, it is clear they are notinterested in anything other than continuing their desperatedrive to sabotage this law, which so far has included shuttingdown the government," said Drew Hammill, spokesman for HouseDemocratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

TARGETED STRIKES

House Speaker John Boehner has also called for "smart,targeted strikes" aimed at splitting the unity that Democratsdemonstrated in their showdown with Republicans over the debtceiling.

Aides say the idea is to pressure Democrats fromconservative states into backing Republican bills to delay ordismantle parts of the law, by playing up problems in their homedistricts that could be blamed on Obamacare's flaws.

Republican strategists believe that using Obamacare's flawsto hurt Democratic lawmakers could also help Republicans realizetheir 2014 election goal of winning Senate control. Potentiallyvulnerable Democrats include Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, MarkPryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

"At some point, the message should sink in that the law'shurting their constituents. If that happens, hopefully they'llsee that they need to break party ranks and support change orsuffer tremendous consequences in 2014," said Dan Holler ofHeritage Action for America, the conservative advocacy grouplinked to the Heritage Foundation.

A renewed Republican focus on the law's implementation couldbe an unwelcome distraction for the administration, which hasuntil mid-November to iron out the rollout problems or riskjeopardizing its goal of signing up 7 million uninsured peoplefor coverage in 2014.

The missteps already have led to Republican calls for theresignation of Sebelius.

But the 16-day government shutdown that exposed a bitterdivision between diehard Tea Party conservatives and otherRepublicans has raised concerns about the dangers of furtheroverreach.

"They blew their platform for this discussion and now theyneed to refocus selectively on the most compelling things," saidRepublican strategist Jennifer Millerwise Dyck.

"Anything that comes across as an overreach for fixingObamacare is going to fail," she said. "Wasting time and moneyon the impossible will be met with complete disdain from theAmerican people, especially after the circus we just saw."

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which has spent $12 millionon opposition TV ads aimed at deterring enrollment in ninestates since mid-summer, is contemplating a new media push thatspecifically targets the rollout.

"We want to make sure that the maximum exposure is given toall of the boondoggles and stunning incompetence of therollout," said AFP president Tim Phillips.

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