Marilyn Tavenner, President Obama's point woman in implementing the new health care law, told Congress on Tuesday the new health care law is salvageable and that repairs to the federal Obamacare website will coincide with an expected rush of enrollees by early December, even as GOP lawmakers declare Obamacare a failure.
Ms. Tavenner has enjoyed bipartisan support as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), but the disastrous rollout of online markets tied to President Obama's signature law has left her agency facing heavy political fire — some of it friendly — on Capitol Hill.
"We knew all along we'd have bugs in the system," Ms. Tavenner told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, in her second trip to Capitol Hill in a week to discuss the law's shortcomings.
But she said those glitches exceeded expectations and prevented many people from completing the enrollment process.
She said the federal website that channels most requests for coverage, HealthCare.gov, is a work in progress that will slowly get better by the day, both in capacity and overall performance.
"We acknowledge that we have a lot more to do, and we're ready to do it," she testified.
But CMS officials acknowledged Tuesday "there was a piece of software code to fix" to address a problem that is attracting scrutiny, in which a North Carolina man reported that he was able to view a South Carolina man's name and address while trying to use the system.
"To be clear, as soon as it was reported to us, we put a fix in place to prevent it from happening in the future," CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said on a conference call with reporters, adding she knows of no similar reports.
Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, said during Tuesday's hearing he was troubled by the incident, and that the agency did little to help his constituent get his personal information removed from the system when the issues arose.
The hearing offered Senate Democrats the first opportunity to scrutinize problems that have plagued the debut of insurance markets tied to Obamacare.
Since Oct. 1, the federal HealthCare.gov and some state-run websites have struggled to enroll users, while millions of Americans say they've received cancellation notices from insurers who say their current plans do not meet the Affordable Care Act's standards.
HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said everyone is upset about the glitches, but the health care law may offer a bridge to those who need health coverage most, once the administration fixes the federal website that links Americans from 36 states to coverage.
Fellow Democrats said GOP lawmakers' constituents would be faring better if their states had taken responsibility for running the exchanges, and decried the pre-Obamacare health care industry as a callous machine that searched for ways to dump sick customers.
"That old value system was no good for this country," Mr. Harkin said.
But one by one, Republican senators said too many people are losing coverage they enjoyed, only to be told they should go shopping on a website that doesn't work.
Mr. Obamais facing political heat because he repeatedly promised that people who liked their health plans could keep them, a claim that is proving untrue for millions of Americans. Some of these enrollees say they are facing higher premiums on the exchanges.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the committee's ranking Republican, said there should be broad support for legislation that would let people keep their insurance plans, even if the coverage doesn't meet Obamacare's standards.
Ms. Tavenner told Congress on Tuesday that yearly "churn" in the individual insurance market is common and that the law offers consumers more protections and subsidies to help them afford coverage.
A pro-Obamacare group, Get Covered America, highlighted a married pair of full-time artists in New Mexico who received a cancellation notice for their $250-a-month catastrophic plan, but found a better bronze-level plan on the exchanges that will cost them nothing — because of Obamacare's subsidies.
Supporters and critics of the law are making their cases through cherry-picked anecdotes, but GOP lawmakers say the number of Americans dropped from their plans cannot be ignored.
"It's not what the president promised, and it's not the kind of health reform Americans asked for," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "So we should keep our focus where it belongs — on the real people getting hurt by this law."
House Republicans are raising questions about the security of the overall program, highlighting "War Room" notes requested by Oversight Government Reform that refer, briefly and cryptically, to possible cases of navigator fraud in Kansas and Ohio.
Ms. Bataille, of CMS has dismissed the documents as "meeting notes" and not official records.
"I am not aware of any instances of suspected fraud that have been reported," she told reporters.
Other complaints were state-specific. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, said nightly maintenance on HealthCare.gov from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., EST, doesn't jibe with her constituents' needs. In their time zone, the daily shut-down occurs right after parents put their kids to bed and have the time to review their insurance options.
Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, said she wants the law to work, but needs to see more clarity and outreach from the Obama administration.
"What I worry about is that there's such a crisis of confidence, people won't enroll and the very people we need to enroll — particularly our young people — to make this whole system work won't happen," she said.
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