WASHINGTON -- Developers of the problematic Obamacare website faced tough questioning at a House oversight committee Thursday, as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers frustrated by the shoddy roll-out sought answers over what went wrong – and when it would be fixed.
The hearing was not without its political rhetoric: Republicans seized on the opportunity as their best chance to stop the Affordable Care Act they have been unable to undo; Democrats pivoted to Obamacare’s overarching goal of getting uninsured Americans covered.
But as questioning ground past the third hour, frustrated lawmakers expressed exasperation that no quick fix was available.
“How soon will it take to repair these glitches?” asked Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.)
“I have a team of people working around the clock trying to get this quickly resolved,” said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president at CGI Federal, the lead contractor working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Health and Human Services Department.
“Why doesn’t healthcare.gov work properly?” asked Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.)
“If there was a silver bullet to answer that question, I’d give it to you,” Campbell said.
Since the launch on Oct. 1, the online marketplace that is intended to link uninsured Americans to affordable private insurance plans has been best by problems.
Executives of the contractors testifying Thursday blamed the shortcomings on the high volume of traffic that overwhelmed the site on its debut. Users have had trouble signing on, getting accurate cost estimates and completing enrollment.
But not even some of the most prominent supporters of the healthcare law were buying that line of reasoning.
Many of the problems appeared to stem from a last-minute change in the site’s operation, one that required site visitors to sign up before they could window shop policies.
That extra step created a bottleneck, according to Andrew Slavitt, group executive vice president at Optum/QSSI, a business unit of healthcare giant UnitedHealth Group that handled that aspect of the system as a subcontractor to CGI.
Republicans have suggested the late switch to require a sign-in, and disallow window shopping, was initiated by the White House to prevent browsers from experiencing "sticker shock" over the costs of the insurance policies. Democrats disputed that claim, especially as prices on the Affordable Care Act exchange have shown to be varied and sometimes competitive.
Campbell said the Obama administration’s Medicare center made the decision to change the sign-up process.
Slavitt said the move was made within 10 days of the rollout, and his group suggested more testing would be needed.
“We don’t know why the decision was made,” Slavitt said.
The companies, and others with representatives testifying, were paid nearly $500 million combined to develop and launch the site, officials said.
Pitts called the rollout “one of the biggest IT disasters in government history.”
But Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) lambasted what he called the GOP’s “monkey court” as Republicans try to stop the law.
Earlier in the hearing Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) suggested visitors to the website could not be guaranteed their personal privacy, but Democrats argued the site is compliant with so-called HIPPA medical privacy laws.
“Once again my Republican colleagues are trying to scare everybody,” Pallone said.
The White House is scrambling to contain the fallout from the website problems, and fix the problems to prevent further calls to delay the law. Already, Republicans – and increasingly Democrats – have suggested that provisions requiring Americans to have insurance in 2014, or face a fine, should be postponed unless fixes are made.
[For the Record, 11:05 a.m. PST Oct. 24: An earlier version of this post identified Rep. Eshoo as a Republican, not a Democrat.]
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