- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The head of the agency in charge of the new health care law apologized Tuesday to people who’ve tried to use the flawed federal Obamacare website, but she said she still has faith that the site will be working for most Americans by the end of November.

“To the millions of Americans who’ve attempted to use healthcare.gov to shop and enroll in health care coverage, I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should,” Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testified to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Ms. Tavenner, the first administration official to testify about the website, is viewed as the second-in-command to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But as an agency chief, Ms. Tavenner was closer to the development of the site, which handles requests from uninsured Americans in 36 states.

The site’s debut this month has been spoiled by long wait times, error messages and coding issues that will take weeks to fix.

Republicans long have pushed for a one-year delay to the mandate requiring Americans to obtain some form of health insurance. In recent days, some Senate Democrats said they’d consider such a delay if website-based problems linger.

Under pressure, the White House confirmed plans late Monday to extend by six weeks, from Feb. 15 to March 31, the deadline for obtaining insurance without facing penalties. Enrollees do not have to request anything specific to qualify for the hardship provision that lets them sign up between those dates, CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said Tuesday.

Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, said after Tuesday’s hearing it was a “big disappointment” that CMS does not plan to release Obamacare enrollment figures until late November, a wait that makes it hard to gauge whether people can successfully make it through the troubled Web portal.

He also said the agency had plenty of time to get the website right.

“Frankly, three years should have been enough, and had the administration provided more forthcoming answers and shared in a transparent manner the reality of the challenges it was encountering in the implementation process, I suspect many of these glitches could have been avoided,” he said.

Ms. Tavenner blamed some of the website’s hiccups on a private contractor, citing the “timing of delivery” of their work.

“That contractor is CGI [Federal] … but we’re working with them,” she testified, referring to the lead vendor on the project.

Executives from CGI and other contractors told Congress last week they performed admirably, but CMS failed to test the federal exchange system “end to end” until two weeks before its Oct. 1 launch.

Ms. Bataille declined to speak about any tensions between the agency and CGI during a conference call with reporters, saying those conversations would be held directly with the contractor.

Earlier Tuesday, the House’s chief investigator said he had issued subpoenas to Quality Software Services Inc. demanding documents that will show whether the contractor hired to build the federal Obamacare website took precautions on data security.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House oversight committee, said reports stating that HealthCare.gov wasn’t fully tested before it went live raises questions about whether the site can protect the sensitive data consumers are entering when they try to sign up for health plans.

Mr. Issa said he is seeking all correspondence between QSSI employees and the Obama administration. He said he had sent a letter to 11 contractors who helped build HealthCare.gov seeking documents, and had warned them that a failure to voluntarily turn materials over would result in a subpoena.

Ways and Means Democrats said Tuesday that the website glitches are problematic, but the law is working well in states that decided to set up their own insurance exchanges.

Their spirited defense of Mr. Obama’s reforms hit a dramatic high point when Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat, challenged Republicans to explain to the parents of children with pre-existing conditions that they plan to dismantle the law and its protections for those children.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a civil-rights movement hero, said Republican opposition to the law reminded him of when senators from the South resisted a 1954 Supreme Court ruling to desegregate the schools.

“There have been a deliberate and systematic attempt on the part of the majority in the House and the minority in the Senate to make it impossible for all Americans to receive quality health care. And some of us will not stand for it,” he said, pounding on the dais. “We will stand up and fight for what is right, for what is fair and what is just. Health care is a right and not a privilege.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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