Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner, testifying before Congress on Tuesday.
It's debatable whether the administration will be able to meet its self-imposed November 30th deadline for fixing Healthcare.gov, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance marketplace that is still suffering from extensive technical issues. However, opponents have begun shifting their criticisms to other aspects of the law.
Members of Congress today interrogated Marilyn Tavenner, the first administration official to testify since Healthcare.gov debuted, and the head of the agency that coordinated its development. However, there were just as many questions about premium increases, plan cancellations, background checks for street teams, and other aspects of the new healthcare law as there were about the problems with the website and the plan to fix it.
"The flaw is not the website. The flaw is the law itself," Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX) said during today's hearing. "While a website can eventually be fixed, the widespread problems with Obamacare cannot," said Representative Dave Camp (R-MI).
"The flaw is not the website. The flaw is the law itself."
Uninsured Americans, who are not covered by their employers or through another plan such as Medicaid, are supposed to be able to buy affordable insurance on the marketplace as individuals.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversaw the multi-year development of the marketplace, estimated that 7 million people would enroll in Healthcare.gov plans by the end of March.
Yet only about 700,000 people have successfully submitted applications through Healthcare.gov, and about half of those came in through state websites, Tavenner testified.
Tavenner declined to release the number of people who have actually been enrolled in plans, saying that CMS and the administration decided not to publish those numbers until mid-November. "We expect the initial number to be small," she says.
Many questions from Republican committee members lingered on fundamental objections to the ACA and focused less on the still-broken website, failures of multimillion-dollar contractors, and issues with the law's implementation, which was the purported subject of the hearing.
Getting the technology working is critical to the success of the policy both sides are now calling Obamacare. In light of the website's deep-seated bugs, the administration is now recommending three alternative ways to apply for insurance: by phone, in person with one of the ACA "navigators," or on paper.
Phone and in-person applications are also being keyed into Healthcare.gov, however. The only way to truly bypass the website is to file a paper application, which will be entered by QSSI employees through a different system. (You may also be able to sign up through a traditional insurance agent, depending on what state you live in.)
The only way to truly bypass the website is to file a paper application
Tavenner apologized for the dysfunctional website, which she says suffered from two major issues: high traffic and "functional glitches" in the actual application for insurance. "This Healthcare.gov site is fixable," she says. "We've identified a clear path for a lot of fixes that will be taken one by one."
The task of fixing the broken website is being overseen by QSSI, one of the contractors that Tavenner says did not flub its deadlines on Healthcare.gov, and former acting Office of Management and Budget chief Jeff Zients, who has experience repairing busted government websites. The administration has already pushed back some ACA deadlines in light of the technological issues, meaning uninsured Americans will not be penalized until after March.
Improvements are already being made, the administration says, noting that 90 percent of users are now able to create an account.
Tavenner got off relatively lightly today, considering her agency greenlit a website that froze users out of their accounts, stranded them in the middle of the application process, sent flawed data to insurance companies, stalled out while users tried to sign in for hours, and went down completely last weekend due to a data center outage.
There are also reports of the site's vulnerability to hackers and potential privacy violations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
The administration got off lightly today
"When a federal site launches, it requires someone to sign a document that says everything is okay, called an Authority to Operate," says Clay Johnson, a former White House Innovation fellow. "Whoever signed that document just needs to be fired, because it was clearly not good to go and not ready."
That responsibility would seem to rest with Tavenner, who signed the Authority to Operate for the data services hub, the one part of Healthcare.gov that reportedly works, back in September. However, calls for resignation have been targeted instead at her boss: Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services. Sebelius will testify before Congress tomorrow.
In the meantime, if you're having trouble with Healthcare.gov, try using Internet Explorer instead of Chrome. Sometimes that works.