failures surface at Hill hearing

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans were taking aim at the Obama administration's handling of its crippled health insurance website as Congress began hearings Thursday to examine why many consumers have been unable to sign up for new online markets, a key part of President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul...

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans were taking aim at the Obama administration’s handling of its crippled health insurance website as Congress began hearings Thursday to examine why many consumers have been unable to sign up for new online markets, a key part of President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul.

Thursday’s hearing will focus on the contractors who built the federal government’s website and say the Obama administration shares responsibility for the snags that have crippled the system. It’s just a first step for Republicans. After the failure of their drive to defund Obama’s health care overhaul by shutting down the government, they’ve been handed a new line of attack by the administration’s troubled online rollout of what’s known as “Obamacare.”

Republicans had been on the defensive, suffering record low approval ratings after their failed strategy led to a 16-day partial government shutdown and pushed the U.S. to the brink of a debt default. The showdown ended up overshadowing the severe technical problems with Obamacare’s online exchanges, which launched Oct. 1 — the same day the government shutdown began.

Now the Democrats on the defensive, and Thursday’s hearing comes as Obama’s allies are starting to fret about the political fallout from Obamacare’s problems. Democrats facing re-election in Congress next year had hoped to run on the benefits of the new health care law for millions of uninsured Americans. The program is the closest the U.S. has ever come to universal health care after a century of efforts and its passage through Congress remains Obama’s biggest domestic achievement as president.

Administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, are to testify to Congress next week.

One House Democrat says the president needs to “man up” and fire somebody, while others are calling for signup deadlines to be extended and a reconsideration of the penalties individuals will face next year if they do not purchase insurance, as mandated under the law.

Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, interviewed Thursday on “CBS This Morning,” said that Obama “can’t just get stuck on this for the next several weeks.” As for calls that Sebelius be fired, Daley said that would be like firing the captain of the Titanic “after the ship hit the iceberg.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Congressman Richard Nolan told The Associated Press the fiasco has “damaged the brand” of the health care law.

“The president needs to man up, find out who was responsible, and fire them,” Nolan said. He did not name anyone.

Acknowledging what’s been obvious to many outside experts, the Obama administration said Wednesday that the system didn’t get enough testing, especially at a high user volume, before going live. It blamed a compressed time frame for meeting the Oct. 1 deadline to open the insurance markets. Basic “alpha and user testing” are now completed, but that’s supposed to happen before a launch, not after.

Republican Congressman Joe Pitts, chairman of the House panel’s health subcommittee, said he wants to focus on the administration’s decision not to allow browsing, or window-shopping. That’s a standard feature of e-commerce sites, including the government’s site for seniors. Lack of a browsing capability forced all users to first go through the laborious process of creating accounts, overloading that part of the site.

“Who made that decision? When was it made? Why was it made?” Pitts asked.

Executives of CGI Federal, which built the federal website serving 36 states, and QSSI, which designed the part that verifies applicants’ income and other personal details, were testifying Thursday before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI, suggested in prepared testimony that Congress should look beyond the contractors. The federal government “is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance,” she said.

Overwhelming interest from consumers triggered the website problems, she said.

Andy Slavitt, representing QSSI’s parent company, said the operation’s virtual back room, known as the federal data hub, is working well despite some bugs. But his company was also involved with another part of the system, a component for registering individual consumer accounts that became an online bottleneck.

Slavitt blamed the administration, saying that a late decision to require consumers to create accounts before they could browse health plans contributed to the overload.

The administration provided no timetable to fix extensive computer snags but said technicians are deep into the job. Its explanation, posted online in a Health and Human Services department blog and accompanying graphic, identified six broad areas of problems and outlined fixes underway but in most cases incomplete.

The government’s explanation identified some bugs that have gotten little outside attention. Technical problems have surfaced that are making the application and plan-shopping functions difficult to complete. That’s a concern because those stages are farther along in the signup process than the initial registration, where many consumers have been getting tripped up. The problems are being analyzed and fixes are planned.

Obama says he’s as frustrated as anyone and has promised a “tech surge” to fix the balky website. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration will be more transparent about the problems. After more than 20 days without briefing the media, HHS will start regular sessions on Thursday, he said.


Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Stephen Ohlemacher, Josh Lederman and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.

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