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Obama chooses ex-budget chief Zients to oversee HealthCare.gov repairs

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Scrambling to fix the Obamacare website, the White House announced Tuesday that it has hired former budget director Jeff Zients to oversee repairs to the faulty system that is threatening implementation of the entitlement program itself.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has received less than full-throated support from President Obama as the website's problems have multiplied, said Mr. Zients will provide "short-term advice, assessments and recommendations." The move is the latest indication that Mr. Obama is losing confidence in Mrs. Sebelius' ability to fix the HealthCare.gov website speedily after an error-filled first three weeks.

As the administration brought in the management consultant and hired Verizon to improve the website, Republican lawmakers stepped up their efforts to investigate the botched rollout.

The House's top investigators said they want to know if the administration made a political decision to get rid of an online tool that would have allowed uninsured Americans to comparison-shop among private health plans on the federal Obamacare website before registering for an account.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote to the administration's top information technology officers Tuesday to demand answers about the purported maneuver.

They cited committee briefings with CGI Federal — the lead contractor on HealthCare.gov, which channels Obamacare traffic from 36 states — as the catalyst for their suspicions.

"Although CGI officials were not able to identify who within the administration made the decision to disable the anonymous shopping feature, evidence is mounting that political considerations motivated the decision," Mr. Issa and four other committee Republicans said in their letter to U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel and Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

CGI signed a five-year contract worth nearly $94 million with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the chief agency in charge of implementing the health care law, the letter says.

Early on, CGI officials aired concerns about the readiness of the online portals in a briefing with the oversight committee.

According to the Republican lawmakers, CGI officials said that CMS staff would regularly say things like, "This is what the White House wants," raising the specter of politically motivated decisions.

A Wall Street Journal article cited in the House letter said the administration wanted to make sure that users were aware of any subsidies they qualified for — before they got a look at the prices of various health policies.

Mr. Issa's letter suggests the register-first model caused the site to jam up.

"Many IT experts have suggested that the decision to disable the anonymous shopping feature contributed to the failure of healthcare.gov on October 1, 2013, and in the weeks that have followed," the lawmakers say in their letter.

A spokesman for CMS could not be reached for comment on the Republican House members' inquiry.

The rocky rollout of the insurance portals tied to Obamacare has been a serious headache for an administration that is hoping about 7 million people obtain coverage during an open enrollment period that lasts until March 31.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing Thursday with several Obamacare contractors to probe flaws in the rollout of the website.

Also, a House Republican lawmaker said he will introduce legislation to stop the collection of personal data on HealthCare.gov. Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, said Internet security specialists "have raised serious questions about the site's architecture."

"The Obamacare website has been a failure," said Mr. Fleming, who has called for Mrs. Sebelius' resignation. "We must make certain that there is no risk to the personal and financial data of Americans who use the site. The only way to do that is to stop HealthCare.gov from collecting such data until a full and independent audit can be done on the site's security systems."

Mr. Zients joined the administration in 2009 as the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. A corporate management specialist, he twice served as the White House's acting budget director.

The White House had announced in September that Mr. Zients would be returning to the administration as director of the president's National Economic Council. He's expected to take over that role early next year after helping out with the website problems.

Serving earlier as the White House's chief performance officer, Mr. Zients led the Accountable Government Initiative aimed at revamping federal information technology services.

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