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Obama administration IT experts prepare to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday.
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite
Obama administration IT experts prepare to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday.

The Obamacare train wreck continues

Healthcare | As House lawmakers grill Obama administration IT experts on the failed launch of HealthCare.gov, enrollment numbers continue to fall below expectations

WASHINGTON—It’s been a healthcare rollout that many have called a train wreck. But Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., claimed on Wednesday that such a description is “not fair to train wrecks.”

Gowdy issued his judgment during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing examining the current frontline of the Obamacare debacle: the failed HealthCare.gov website.

“This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launch pad,” said committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “Whether you like Obamacare or not, taxpayer dollars were wasted; precious time was wasted.”

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Issa, along with other House Republicans and a few Democrats on the committee, grilled top information technology officials from the Obama administration, including Todd Park, the White House’s chief technology officer, and Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In earlier private testimony before congressional investigators, Chao said he was “surprised” and “disturbed” to learn of the security issues plaguing the web portal.

At the public hearing on Wednesday, the collection of administration IT experts admitted that testing was done early on an incomplete system, that deciding not to delay the launch wasn’t their decision to make, and that the launch errors were due to “functionality bugs” and not just due to web traffic.

Chao told lawmakers the function allowing customers to window-shop various health plans “failed so miserably that we could not consciously allow people to use it.” He added that he could not recall another government web project that went live before end-to-end testing. Frank Baitman, the Health and Human Services chief information officer said he only met with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius once in October as the website kept crashing.

“These problems are unacceptable,” said Park.

But when asked by lawmakers to assign a letter grade to Obamacare’s rollout, none of the administration’s IT gurus would agree to do so. They also declined to say if they’d give it a pass-or-fail rating. They did say they were “working hard” and “gunning for” the president’s promised Nov. 30 deadline to fix the website’s problems.

But that promise rang hollow when Rep. James Lankford held up his iPad at the hearing and claimed he had been trying unsuccessfully to log on to the website for the last 90 minutes. The “create account” button was not working for the Republican from Oklahoma. Media outlets like The Washington Post and ABC News are reporting that the website continues to crash when as few as 20,000 people try to use it at the same time. The “punch list” of problems to fix the site is still lengthy, according to these reports, which conclude it is unlikely that the administration will make the Nov. 30 deadline. Obama last week said the “website is already better than it was at the beginning of October, and by the end of this month, we anticipate that it is going to be working the way it is supposed to, all right?”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., asked the panel how much it was going to cost to fix the website. The administration IT experts were unable to provide an answer on the final price tag. More than $600 million already has been spent on the dysfunctional website.

But the problems with Obamacare extend beyond the website. The Obama administration announced Wednesday that fewer than 27,000 people have signed up for private health insurance plans in the past month in the 36 states tied to HealthCare.gov. States using their own enrollment systems have fared better, signing up more than 79,000. The total enrollment figure of 106,185 is roughly one-fifth of the nearly 500,000 people the Obama administration projected would sign up in the first month and represents only 1.5 percent of the 7 million people the administration hoped to enroll by next year.

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With the government way behind in its sign-up goals, particularly among the young people needed to pay premiums to make the program financially viable, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and ProgressNow Colorado Education have launched a “Thanks Obamacare!” ad campaign targeted to that demographic. But the “Got Insurance?” series of advertisements (which mimic the “Got Milk?” ad campaign) have generated more controversy among conservatives for being highly sexualized and for promoting the free birth control available through Obamacare. One advertisement features a leering woman standing next to a man and stating: “Let’s hope he’s as easy as this free birth control.”

While a little more than 100,000 individuals have signed up for private plans under Obamacare, more than 5 million Americans have received cancellation notices for their individually purchased plans because the plans do not meet the new federal government standards. With about 15 million Americans owning insurance policies on the individual market, millions more are expected to lose their current coverage because the government thinks they are “badly insured.”

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