Unrevealing Tavenner Hearing Puts More Pressure on Sebelius

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Washington, October 29, 2013 | comments

The stage was set Tuesday for a brutal hearing on what went wrong with the Obamacare website in front of the House Ways and Means Committee. But Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was largely spared from explanations as lawmakers fought over more general implementation of the law.

This may increase pressure on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to provide answers at her House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday.

Tavenner’s hearing Tuesday followed one in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee last week, with Affordable Care Act contractors testifying on the problem-ridden launch of the federal exchange website. The contractors blamed CMS for the botched rollout, saying the agency was ultimately responsible for overall end-to-end testing and performance of the site.

Yet Tavenner’s hearing included far less finger-pointing and surprisingly limited questioning on the status and plan for HealthCare.gov.

Rather than punting blame back to the contractors, Tavenner offered a personal apology for the website’s launch. Describing the plan to fix the site, for which the administration has enlisted contractor Quality Software Services Inc. (QSSI), Tavenner said, “CMS tends to oversee most programs. But because of what I consider the failures in the initial rollout, we felt we needed to bring on additional expertise. So we’ve brought that on in terms of QSSI, which will be accountable to me. Obviously I’m accountable for this.”

Beyond general descriptions of the “tech surge,” the hearing focused on broader partisan arguments for and against the health care law, often leaving website problems, contractors, and even Tavenner herself out of the conversation.

Republican lawmakers directed conversation toward enrollment numbers, premium costs, and insurers dropping coverage, maintaining that site issues are indicative of larger failings in the law. “The problems don’t stop at the technical failures of a website,” said Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas. “The real problem stems from the colossal failure to deliver what this law promised the American people.”

Meanwhile, Democrats extolled the importance of quality health coverage. “We Democrats are looking for problems to fix. My Republican colleagues, when it comes to this issue of the Affordable Care Act, they’re looking for problems to exploit,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y. “We can fix a broken website. What we cannot fix are broken ideas and a broken agenda.”

Prelaunch testing of the website came up toward the end of the hearing, and Tavenner maintained that tests had appeared fine. “Stress tests and load-testing were done,” she said. “In the first few hours of the site, it had probably five times the volume that we ever projected. So in retrospect, we could have done more about load-testing.”

However, Tavenner’s hearing leaves many questions unanswered about CMS’s role in testing and who was responsible for decisions regarding the launch of HealthCare.gov, leaving the Energy and Commerce Committee to pick up where it left off last week.

Sebelius’s written testimony indicates the hearing Wednesday could be far more of a blame game. “CMS has a track record of successfully overseeing the many contractors our programs depend on to function,” the testimony reads. “Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations.”

That line is virtually identical to one that appeared in Tavenner’s written testimony, though she did not immediately appear familiar with it during the hearing Tuesday.

Facing the same determined committee as the contractors—with many fingers pointed in the secretary’s direction—is likely to result in a hearing more focused on HealthCare.gov.

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