U.S. health care rollout undergoes first congressional scrutiny

Reuters

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) - The troubled rollout ofPresident Barack Obama's signature healthcare policy on Thursdayundergoes its first full-length public airing in a crowdedcongressional hearing room, where lawmakers will questiontechnology contractors about the government's crippledHealthcare.gov website.

In proceedings before the House Energy and CommerceCommittee, lawmakers are trying to determine why the onlineportal for uninsured Americans in 36 states has malfunctionedsince its Oct. 1 start, the beginning of a six-month enrollmentperiod that is expected to draw at least 7 million people tosign up for federally subsidized private insurance for 2014.

Republicans who control the panel criticized topadministration officials and contractors for assuring lawmakersover the summer that the system would work, only to produce anenrollment characterized by crashes, glitches and systemfailures.

"This is not about blame - this is about accountability,transparency, and fairness for the American public. The brokenpromises are many," said Representative Fred Upton, the MichiganRepublican who chairs the committee.

"We still don't know the real picture as the administrationappears allergic to transparency and continues to withholdenrollment figures," he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the WhiteHouse have largely declined to disclose information about theproblems plaguing the system, which cost nearly $400 million tobuild, according to a report by the watchdog GovernmentAccountability Office.

Representative Henry Waxman, the lead Democrat on the panel,said the focus should be on fixing the glitches.

"If we want this law to work, we've got to get it right,we've got to fix it, not as the Republicans are trying to do,nix it and repeal it," he said.

The hearing marks the start of a new chapter in theRepublican Party's opposition to the 2010 Patient Protection andAffordable Care Act, which has withstood more than three yearsof political and legal attacks as President Barack Obama'ssignature domestic policy.

Upton's committee is one of at least three House panelsplanning to conduct hearings on several areas of reform - frominsurance costs to potential security problems - whereRepublicans hope to find problems that can lead to legislationto dismantle the law or aid their 2014 election goal to winningthe Senate.

Some of the 14 U.S. states that have built their own onlinemarketplaces have been able to set aside difficulties and enrollpeople in insurance. But the federal exchange and itsHealthcare.gov website continue to experience problems more thanthree weeks after launch. The Obama administration has largelyblamed unexpected high volumes of nearly 20 million visitors.

The administration has until mid-November to iron out therollout problems or risk jeopardizing its enrollment goal,according to experts.

CGI Federal, the main contractor for the website, said inprepared testimony for the committee that the initialbottlenecks that paralyzed Healthcare.gov stemmed from anothercontractor's software tool for creating consumer accounts.

That other contractor, United Health Group unitQuality Software Services Inc (QSSI), said its software wasoverwhelmed by the unexpectedly high volume of visitors.

Both companies also pointed to the administration, whichQSSI blamed for a "late decision" to require visitors to createaccounts for problems. Written testimony from CGI described theadministration as "the ultimate responsible party" because ofits role as systems integrator.

The House oversight focus will switch next week to theadministration as Health and Human Services Secretary KathleenSebelius appears before Upton's panel and her lieutenant,Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator MarilynTavenner testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee.

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