Washington— Two Michigan lawmakers will lead the GOP’s charge this week in grilling top Obama administration officials about problems with the federal health care exchange website.
U.S. Rep. Dave Camp of Midland, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, will preside over a hearing today where Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is scheduled to answer questions on the glitches and technical troubles that have plagued the rollout of the healthcare.gov website since its launch Oct. 1.
The website went down over the weekend when the company that operates the data center, Verizon Terremark, had a network failure. The outage issues were resolved, and tech teams continue to put into place fixes to improve the website’s performance, the Department of Health and Human Services said Monday.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will continue the investigation by bringing Tavenner’s boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, before his committee for questioning.
Upton late Monday unveiled legislation to let people keep their health plans. Tens of thousands of Michiganians — 140,000 alone at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and 6,000 at Health Alliance Plan — have received word their health care plans will be dropped because they don’t comply with the minimum coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act. They’ve been told they should sign up for more comprehensive plans that in some cases may be more expensive, according to the insurers.
“This legislation is about providing folks the peace of mind that they will be allowed to keep their current coverage if they so choose,” Upton, R-St. Joseph, said in a statement.
White House press secretary Jay Carney earlier Monday defended the law as forcing insurers to improve substandard insurance plans.
“The Affordable Care Act is built on the premise that health care is not a privilege, it’s a right, and there should be minimum standards for the plans available to Americans across the country,” Carney said.
Upton has not joined some fellow Republican colleagues in calling for Sebelius’ resignation, but said he’s frustrated with the Obama administration’s assurances the exchanges were on track when the launch proved they are a “royal mess.”
President Barack Obama said nobody is more frustrated with the website problems than him and pledged the administration is working around the clock to get the site working properly.
Obama has appointed Jeff Zeints, who oversaw fixes in the federal cash-for-clunkers program, to repair the health care website. Zeints, a former Obama budget official, said the website would be operating smoothly by the end of November.
“There’s no excuse for the problems, and these problems are getting fixed,” Obama said last week.
Michigan did not launch its own health care exchange and is part of the federal exchange. Under that system, consumers searching for private insurance on the site have been hampered by technical glitches that have prevented signing up for plans that begin Jan. 1.
Contractors in Michigan charged with helping residents search for health care, known as navigators, have resorted to paper applications.
GOP fight continues
The GOP-led House has voted dozens of times to repeal the 2010 health care law and most recently staged a showdown over funding the law that led to the 16-day partial government shutdown. Website problems have opened a front for the GOP to validate its concerns.
“The Republicans have been winning the war on Obamacare, and they chose to lose a battle over the shutdown,” said Greg McNeilly, GOP consultant in Michigan, who was critical of the Republicans’ shutdown strategy. “Here’s an opportunity to get back on path.”
He suggested Camp and Upton should focus less on technical issues to improve the site, but rather argue the problems are indicative of the broader failure of the law. The administration “simply lied to the American people (by saying): ‘You are going to be able to keep your health care,’ ” McNeilly said. “We find out that you are not.”
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who has championed universal health care and sponsored the 2010 law, said the initial problems with the website launch shouldn’t be surprising considering the magnitude of the program. Canceled policies mean insurers weren’t offering the quality coverage to pass the “sniff test,” and now they will, he said.
Glitches shouldn’t overshadow the benefits of the overarching law to protect patients and widen the availability of coverage to the previously uninsured, he said.
“If the Republicans really care about this, they’ll quit this business of trying to destroy the benefits of the act and get down to the serious business to seeing to it that it works because the benefits of it are enormous,” said Dingell, D-Dearborn, chairman emeritus of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
He also dismissed the calls for Sebelius’ resignation as insincere. “These guys would call for the pope to resign if it would help in election time,” Dingell said.
Delayed deadline pushed
Last week, healthcare.gov contractors told Upton’s committee they tested their parts of the website in advance, but the initial end-to-end testing didn’t happen until shortly before the Oct. 1 launch, and they would have liked more time. Democrats and Republicans alike expressed frustration with the problems and sought assurances the website would be fixed.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, a Howell Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, raised concerns about the security of the site and resistance to cyberattacks.
Upton noted there’s a renewed push to delay the requirement that most Americans have insurance next year — known as the individual mandate. Nine Senate Democrats sent a letter to Sebelius last week urging her to push back the deadline for open enrollment beyond March 31.
“I really think at a minimum that’s got to happen,” Upton said.
Stan Collender, partner at the Washington-based Qorvis Communications public relations firm, said he doesn’t expect much in the way of solutions coming out Camp and Upton’s hearings.
“Hearings are almost never about substance,” Collender said. “They’re political theater. ... This is about political embarrassment, not about fixing the problem.”