White House, Republicans spar over Obamacare record

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The Obama administration said Friday it is seeing mixed progress in fixing the federal Obamacare website, as Republicans piled on criticism by saying taxpayers should get a refund for the broken $400 million Internet portal and that new numbers indicate that few people have enrolled in the insurance market for the District of Columbia tied to the health care law.

Jeffrey Zients, the management expert tapped to fix HealthCare.gov, said his repair team knocked items off its to-do list this week, reducing the time it takes for pages to load and improving users’ experiences on the front end of the website that serves 36 states.

However, capacity issues and software problems are cropping up as more users make it further into the enrollment process on the system.

“We made progress this week, though again hit roadblocks that impacted the user experience and slowed us down,” Mr. Zients said on a conference call with reporters.

The IRS is set to begin its own set of fixes this weekend, meaning its role in the federal data hub that cross-checks enrollee’s personal data will not be available from Saturday to early Tuesday. Users can still use most aspects of the federal site but will have to come back next week to finish up their enrollment, said Julie Bataille, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Mr. Zients said he is working “around the clock” on patching up the site, and disclosed that he is “not receiving any pay.”

Taxpayer money was at the forefront of Sen. Mark Kirk’s mind on Friday. One day after the Illinois Republican filed a bill with Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, that would delay the law’s mandate that all Americans get health insurance for one year, he said Americans “deserve a clear explanation and a refund of their money” for HealthCare.gov.

“It’s time the administration came clean on a deal that spends $400 million of taxpayer money, especially when that deal results in a disaster like this website,” he said in a letter to CMS co-signed by three fellow Senate Republicans.

Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa cast doubt on the District’s ability to enroll people on its exchange, which is run by the city and does not rely on HealthCare.gov.

They said that based on data requests to the four insurers that offer plans on D.C. Health Link, only five people have enrolled since the program kicked off Oct. 1.

“With numbers like these, it’s no wonder the Obama administration hasn’t wanted to release how many people have signed up for ObamaCare,” Mr. Hatch said. “With data from D.C.’s four participating health plans in, there’s been a whopping five people enrolled in the city’s exchange. That’s right — five.”

But D.C. exchange spokesman Richard Sorian said “that is not an accurate depiction of the strong level of interest in the District of Columbia in obtaining quality, affordable health insurance.”

He said as of Oct. 21, more than 12,000 city residents had created accounts on the site and 321 had selected a health plan for enrollment. Also, 426 small businesses had created accounts.

“Consumers have until Dec. 15 to finalize their selection by paying their first month’s premium in order to have coverage on Jan. 1, 2014,” he said, noting he cannot speak to what measures the senators were using because he had not seen their documents. “Small businesses have until Dec. 12 to do the same. We are very pleased with the strong, enthusiastic response from the residents and small business owners in the District.”

CMS officials said they will release long-awaited enrollment data from the federal exchange system and the state-run exchanges next week.

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