California Healthline Daily Edition

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Sebelius: Obama Unaware of ACA Website Glitches Before Launch

On Tuesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius dismissed claims that President Obama was aware of the problems that have plagued the federally run insurance exchange website before the site's Oct. 1 launch, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports.

In an interview on CNN's AC360, Sebelius said the problems with the website "became clear" to Obama "in the first couple of days" (Easley, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 10/22). Sebelius attributed some of the problems to the high volume of traffic, adding that the abundance of visitors "also exposed some additional problems" (Nicks, "Swampland," Time, 10/22).

In an ideal situation, Sebelius said the administration could have built a better product in "a five-year period of time ... But we didn't have five years." Further, delaying the Oct. 1 roll out was "not really an option" because "Americans who rely on it for health coverage didn't have five years," she said (Winfield Cunningham, Politico, 10/22).

Sebelius reaffirmed that she is focused on getting the website working, noting that "we've asked all of our contractors to look at their teams on the ground and bring in their absolute A team" ("Healthwatch," The Hill, 10/22). She said, "I'm talking with CEOs and urging them to make sure we have the talent they have available," adding, "We want new eyes and ears. We want to make sure we get all the questions on the table, and we get all the answers" (Politico, 10/22).

Former White House Official To Help Repair Efforts

In a separate announcement on Tuesday, Sebelius said the administration had appointed former Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeffrey Zients to help manage and fix the federal website's online enrollment process, the New York Times' "In Practice" reports (Calmes, "In Practice," New York Times, 10/22).

Zients previously served as CEO of the Advisory Board Company, which produces California Healthline for the California HealthCare Foundation.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Zients will take on a "short-term assignment" at HHS before he begins his duties as the White House chief economic adviser next year. Carney described Zients as "an expert in the field of effective management," adding that he worked on resolving major website issues during Obama's first term (Eilperin, "Post Politics," Washington Post, 10/22).  

According to the announcement, Zients will lead a team of contractors and experts from the insurance industry, "veterans of top Silicon Valley" companies and others, including Verizon. Sebelius said HHS will also work with officials from states whose exchanges have been functioning properly.

Charles Phillips -- CEO of Infor and former member of Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board -- said most of the problems with are on the back end and can be fixed. He described the issues as "non-trivial problems" that were "exacerbated with a big-bang rollout."

Phillips said now that administration officials know "what the problems are ... they can go back and address each problem one by one" (Kennedy, USA Today, 10/23).

Upton Previews Hearing Questions

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) on Tuesday previewed some of the questions his committee's members would ask Sebelius when she testifies about the federal exchange website next week, Politico reports (Cheney, Politico, 10/22).

HHS and the officials from the Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this week confirmed that Sebelius will testify on the exchange website during a hearing scheduled on Oct. 30.

Sebelius agreed to speak before the committee at a hearing next week after she initially turned down the panel's invitation to appear at a similar hearing that is scheduled for Thursday because of a scheduling conflict. The committee said representatives from four federal contractors that worked on the portal and the new exchange data hub -- CGI, Equifax, Quality Software Services Inc. and Serco -- will testify this week (California Healthline, 10/22). According to Politico, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner also is expected to testify before the committee on the implementation of the law on Oct. 29 (Haberkorn, Politico, 10/22).

During an interview on Detroit's WJR Radio, Upton said the committee has planned a "pretty tough grilling" for Sebelius. Upton said the questions would include the extent of Sebelius' and the administration's knowledge of the problems, such as how early they were apparent, as well as whether the administration would reconsider delaying the individual mandate and whether the contractors hired to process applications over the phone will be based in the U.S.

Upton said, "If you harken back to this last summer, when the administration saw there were a number of glitches, they offered waivers, they offered delays." He argued, "They knew all this. They should've taken us up on the offer. It's not ready for prime time" (Cheney, Politico, 10/22). 

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