WASHINGTON – The federal government botched the rollout of its multi-million dollar website for potential enrollees of health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, Representatives Cory Gardner indicated and Diana DeGette said at a congressional hearing Thursday. But the severity of the mismanagement and the reasons for it were two bones of contention among the Yuma Republican and Denver Democrat.
Officials for four contractors who worked with the lead federal agency in charge of HealthCare.gov appeared before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. They were invited to appear for a second time after they told the committee Sept. 10 that the federal website would function properly on Oct. 1, the day Americans without health insurance could see if they qualify for a taxpayer subsidized plan or Medicare under an expansion of the program.
Media reports estimate that implementing HealthCare.gov cost $300-$400 million.
“(W)e are still hearing reports of significant problems,” DeGette said in her opening statement. “I want to stress, for the Affordable Care Act to work, these problems need to be fixed, and fixed fast.”
Hours after DeGette gave her statement, Gardner asked a representative for a lead contractor the identities of the “best and brightest” IT experts who have been hired to work to fix the technical glitches of the site. Cheryl Campbell, the senior vice president for CGI Federal, said “I don’t have the names.
They are small businesses on their own,” Campbell said, adding she would give him the names at a later date.
The bipartisan disapproval of the contractors’ work contrasted with the partisanship of whether the contractors’ work will fix the site before March 31, the last day to enroll for 2014.
DeGette, a major proponent of Obamacare for its requirements on birth-control and abortion access, said she would give the federal contractors “the benefit of the doubt.”
DeGette also made reference to a Bush-era measure during the hearing, comparing the initial technical problems of Obamacare to those of Medicare Part D, the Republican-backed law that added a prescription drug benefit for seniors.
“Let’s not forget what a mess it was, and the significant problems seniors had with registering for the new benefit,” she said, alluding to delays in signing up in 2005 and 2006.
DeGette’s comparison drew a rebuke from Gardner. “I did not know they could get people to buy the logic or illogic of blaming the problems on the site on George Bush,” Gardner said in an interview.
A major difference between browsing plans on Medicare Part B today and those on HealthCare.gov is that shopping for a plan on Medicare.gov is easier. A person does not need to provide his or her income and citizenship information before looking at the cost of an insurance plan or benefit.
Gardner seized on this difference in an interview after the four-hour plus hearing ended.
“CGI, the prime contractor, said they were told to turn off the browsing capability before entering personal information, so they couldn’t see the high prices (of the private insurance plans),” Gardner said.
Gardner was referring to an allegation that an influential conservative healthcare expert made Sunday, that two weeks before the launch of the federal site, the Obama administration decided to block Americans from browsing the insurance plans anonymously to prevent the “sticker shock” of higher premiums.
The blog post from Avik Roy on Forbes.com refers to a Wall Street Journal story in which a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said the agency wanted to ensure users knew of their eligibility for subsidies before they “started to see the prices of the policies.”
The Energy and Commerce Committee is not done investigating the problems of HealthCare.gov. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to appear before the panel Wednesday.