Official overseeing revamp: Obamacare site 'fixable'

Official overseeing revamp: Obamacare site 'fixable'
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POSTED: Friday, October 25, 2013 - 8:00pm

UPDATED: Friday, October 25, 2013 - 8:04pm

The Obamacare website, plagued by major problems since its rollout at the start of the month, should be functioning smoothly by the end of November, according to the official now in charge of fixing it.

Jeffrey Zients told reporters on Friday that an outside contractor, QSSI, will handle the task of resolving technical problems that have become a serious political flashpoint for the Obama administration since the site went live on October 1.

"Healthcare.gov is fixable," Zients said on a conference call.

Appointed by President Barack Obama to resolve problems vexing consumers looking to review and shop for insurance under health care exchanges, Zients said the "vast majority" of those who access the site should be able to use all elements within a month.

The noted management consultant and a former White House budget official also confirmed that as many as 70 percent of Healthcare.gov users were unable to create accounts at various times over the past several weeks, which is the first step in the process.

This situation has since improved, he said.

Nonetheless, problems with account creation and other difficulties resulting in inaccurate or unintelligible information being delivered to insurers are among items on a "punch list" Zients said his team is working through.

"The punch list is dozens of items on both sides, in terms of priorities both on performance and functionality and it will continue to - we will add to that list as we find new issues," Zients said. "But most importantly we will be taking issues off the list."

Contractors point fingers

In more than four hours of testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, officials of companies hired to create Healthcare.gov cited a lack of testing on the full system and last-minute changes by the federal agency overseeing the online enrollment system.

Angry exchanges between Republicans who oppose the health reform law, the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats defending it erupted repeatedly, while the contractors insisted their work went fine even though the software buckled when the system went live.

While visiting a health insurance call center in Austin on Firday, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stuck to the Obama administration's line that the functionality of the online insurance marketplace is improving.

Sebelius admitted she was surprised by the site's failure on October 1.

"I didn't realize it wouldn't be operating optimally before the launch," Sebelius said. "I think we knew that if we had had another six months we would probably test further, but I don't think that anyone fully realized that both volume caused some problems, but volume also exposed some problems."

Request to extend the deadline

Separately, 10 Democratic Senators have asked Sebelius to extend the open enrollment period for insurance exchanges beyond March 31. If the period is not extended, people who are uninsured after that date would face an IRS fine.

The group, led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, sent a letter to Sebelius on Friday.

In San Antonio, Sebelius described the open enrollment period as "unusually long" already and any extension would have certain consequences.

Responding to Congress

Sebelius and her agency came under new pressure from the chairman of the Republican-led House Oversight Committee, who said he might consider a subpoena to get the information he wants on the technical issues around the Obamacare website.

Committee aides said Thursday that Health and Human Services Department had so far failed to respond to a previous request, and Rep. Darrell Issa of California gave her her until Monday to comply or possibly face "compulsory" action.

The agency said it is working to comply.

"We have told the Committee repeatedly that we intend to accommodate their interest in better understanding our efforts to implement the ACA," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said in a statement. "The Committee sent us an extremely broad request for documents on October 10 - while the government was still shut down - and asked that we produce these materials within two weeks."

Peters said that the agency has "been engaged in discussions" with the Committee to "better understand and prioritize" requests. 

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