Health & Medicine official apologizes; website problems ‘took us by surprise’

The Obama administration’s lead official on the problem-plagued health insurance marketplace apologized at a congressional hearing Tuesday for its poor performance but said the setback “took us by surprise.”

In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the inability of the website to establish individual user accounts and handle the initial volume of users shortly after open enrollment began on Oct. 1 “was not anticipated” and “did not show up in testing.”

“To the millions of Americans who’ve attempted to use to shop and enroll in health coverage, I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should,” Tavenner testified. “We know how desperately you need affordable coverage. I want to assure you that can and will be fixed.”

The hearing offered the first opportunity for Congress to formally question an administration official about the botched website rollout.

Tavenner repeatedly refused to provide information about how many people have been able to sign up for coverage on the website, telling committee members those numbers would be released in mid-November.

As with most oversight hearings that deal with any aspect of the Affordable Care Act, Tuesday’s session often drifted into emotional political arguments about the merits of the contentious health law and the intent of Republicans to kill it.

“The flaw is not the website,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas. “The flaw is the law itself.”

“The problems don’t stop at the technical failures of the website,” added Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas. “The real problem stems from the colossal failure to deliver what the law promised to the American people.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement, likened the Republican attacks on the health law to those of Southern lawmakers in the 1950s who supported “nullification” and “massive resistance” efforts to oppose federal desegregation laws.

In a dais-slapping rant, Lewis accused the GOP of a “deliberate and systematic attempt” to keep people from getting health care.

“Some of us will not stand for it,” he said. “We will stand up and fight for what is right; for what is fair and what is just. Health care is a right, not a privilege.”

At one point, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., rose from his seat, pointed directly at Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., and began loudly questioning the veracity of Griffin’s claim that House Republicans had presented a viable alternative to the Affordable Care Act.

“After what we’ve gone through in the last three and a half years, you can sit there and say that you had a legitimate alternative?” Pascrell said incredulously. “We’ve gone through 44 votes, 48 votes now, of you trying to dismantle this legislation. You call that cooperation? I don’t.”

Tavenner confirmed that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services badly underestimated the volume of users who would try to access the marketplace website on Oct. 1. She said pre-launch stress and load testing simulated usage that was projected to be three times the volume of users on the website.

But more than 2.8 million people visited the website on Oct. 1. That was three times the traffic to the site after it was redesigned in June and seven times more users than had ever been on the website at any one time in history, Tavenner told reporters on Oct. 1, the opening day.

What resulted was a bottleneck of users who were unable to browse and compare health plans on the site because of malfunctioning software. Private contractors told Congress last week that HHS officials contributed to the problematic launch by deciding in August to require users to establish individual accounts before they could peruse health plan options.

That decision, a severe lack of system-wide testing and the administration’s gross underestimates of initial user volume have triggered a torrent of system problems that have kept an estimated 70 percent of users from being able to fully enroll in health plans.

A team of government and private industry information technology specialists have been detailed to fix the troubled website and expect to have the site fully operational by the end of November, administration officials said last week.

In spite of the problems, Tavenner insisted the site is functioning and improvements are being felt every day.

“The system is working,” she said. “It’s just not working as smoothly or consistently as we want.”

But Democrats on the committee also leveled criticism. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., called the rollout “inexcusable and unacceptable.” She said the experience had damaged national confidence in the health law.

Tavenner said the “failures in the initial rollout” were the reason that a private contractor, Quality Software Services Inc., has been made project manager for the site repair effort. Quality Software is the same company that designed the account-creation application that malfunctioned during the rollout.

Tavenner testified that she didn’t discuss delaying the rollout because there was nothing to indicate that serious problems loomed. She said CGI Federal, the contractor that designed and developed the federal marketplace, struggled with timely delivery of services during site construction. But she would not say what CMS’ concerns were or whether the company was penalized in any way for its performance.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.