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The Obamacare train wreck continues

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


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

The Obamacare train wreck continues

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.”

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.

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.”

Democrats outside of the Obama administration are starting to support changes to Obamacare. Former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday said Obama should abide by his repeated pledge that Americans could keep their current insurance if they like it.

“I personally believe even if it takes a change in the law the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Clinton said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana facing a reelection campaign next year that is now regarded as a toss-up, has authored legislation allowing insurance companies to reinstate the canceled policies. The three original co-sponsors of the bill—Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas—are all Democrats from Republican-leaning states.

But Democrats from more liberal states are starting to come on board, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. That state’s insurance commissioner recently announced that more than 1 million cancellation notices have been sent to Californians since the launch of Obamacare.

In announcing her support of Landrieu’s bill allowing insurance companies to continue offering current plans, Feinstein said she has received 30,842 calls, emails, and letters from her constituents about the issue.

“Too many Americans are struggling to make ends meet,” Feinstein said on Tuesday. “We must ensure that in our effort to reform the healthcare system, we do not allow unintended consequences to go unaddressed.”

On Wednesday, another Senate Democrat from a liberal state, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, also signed onto the bill, signaling more fraying of Democratic unity around Obama’s top domestic achievement. New polls may be fueling these defections.

A Quinnipiac survey released Tuesday reveals that 43 percent of Americans think their healthcare will worsen under Obamacare, while just 19 percent believe the quality of their healthcare will improve. The poll also shows that, for the first time ever, more people view Obama as dishonest than honest. Fifty-two percent of Americans say the president is dishonest, a flip from the 54 percent who called Obama trustworthy on a poll conducted before Obamacare’s Oct. 1 start date. The new Quinnipiac poll found that 54 percent of voters disapprove of Obama’s job performance: the lowest since he became president.

Later this week, the Republican-led House will vote on a bill similar to Sen. Landrieu’s to restore canceled insurance polices. The measure is expected to receive bipartisan support. As both Republican and Democrats talk about tweaking Obamacare, the White House already has announced it opposes the House’s “Keep Your Health Plan Act.”

“We have only begun to see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the broken promises surrounding Obamacare,” warned Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., “As costs soar and quality of care declines, we are going to continue to fight for our constituents who don’t deserve to have their healthcare and their paychecks take such an enormous hit that they’re enduring here under Obamacare.”


Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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