Humiliated by its failure to stall President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul during the now resolved budget and debt ceiling stand-off, Republicans are trying a new line of attack: pressuring the White House to explain widespread glitches with the website meant to enroll millions of Americans in the new system.
With Washington’s fiscal fight out of the way (for now), at least three committees in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are planning hearings where federal officials will be quizzed on what by all accounts has been a chaotic roll-out since the website, HealthCare.gov, was launched on 1 October.
“The American people deserve to know what caused this mess,” said Representative Fred Upton, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which plans to hold the first of the hearings next Thursday. “Delays and technical failures have reached epidemic proportions.”
While 14 states, including New York and California, opted to build their own sites for consumers to shop for cover, the remaining 36 states opted to use the federal site. While in theory it is possible to shop for policies by post or by phone, the online sites – or exchanges – are critical to the success of the reforms, known as Obamacare, under which most Americans will for the first time be required to buy some measure of health insurance.
Republicans are keenly aware that if Obamacare proves a success with consumers – the idea is that by making health insurance mandatory and pooling everyone into the exchanges, premiums for individuals and businesses should come sharply down – their case for overturning or defunding it may come apart. It isn’t without a certain glee, therefore, that they are rushing to highlight the technological nightmare that it has been so far.
Even some of Mr Obama’s allies are voicing frustration. Former White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said that while the focus should not be on the websites but on the broader goal of the policy, the glitches threaten its success. “When they get it fixed, I hope they fire some people that were in charge,” he said.
First in the cross-hairs could be Kathleen Sibelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary. The cabinet member in charge of the roll-out, she is declining to appear before Mr Upton’s committee. Several Republicans are calling for her resignation, forcing the White House to insist she has the confidence of the president.
Whoever appears before Mr Upton’s panel, they will be pressed on why the budget for building HealthCare.gov, which was contracted out to a Canadian company, CGI Group of Montreal, was allowed to balloon from an estimate of $93.7m to nearly $300m and why in spite of all that spending it still doesn’t work properly.
Mr Obama has already been drawn into the controversy. “I am the first to acknowledge that the website that was supposed to do this all in a seamless way has had way more glitches than I think are acceptable and we’ve got people working around the clock to do that,” he told an Iowa radio station this week. “We’ve seen some significant progress but until it’s 100 per cent I’m not going to be satisfied.”
While the greatest problem faced by would-be purchasers seems to be logging on to the website, if they do succeed many struggle to complete enrolment. Only about a quarter of those who start the process are managing to complete it, according to one survey, and around the country, policy providers are complaining of botched applications, for example with multiple spouses sometimes listed, boxes unfilled or information on health conditions that seems untrustworthy.
“It’s not just a bumpy rollout. We’re crossing a bridge with a warning sign that says: BRIDGE OUT,” said Republican Representative Tim Murphy, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee that also plans hearings. “We’ll be trying to get people from the administration to tell us whether they were pretending everything was OK or was there an internal cover-up or did they just not know?”Reuse content