Parties in Hearing Trade Blame Over Obamacare Missteps

Democrats accused Republicans of “another cynical effort to delay” Obamacare as lawmakers today said they were misled that the federal health exchange website was ready to sign up customers starting Oct. 1.

“Here we go again,” Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said as the House Energy and Commerce Committee began the first hearing on failures of “The Republicans don’t have clean hands coming here.”

The website failures since Oct. 1 are making it difficult for people to enroll, marring the health exchanges’ debut and giving critics ammunition to undercut the health-care law. The flaws may discourage young, healthy, web-savvy consumers whose participation is crucial to offset the risk of insuring older, sicker people and to keep the program sustainable.

Officials with President Barack Obama’s administration and contractors repeatedly assured members of the committee that the health exchange was ready before the troubled debut of the site, said Representative Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who heads the House panel.

“This is not about blame, it’s about accountability,” Upton said.

Republicans are seizing on the failures as they seek to delay implementation of the affordable care law, while Democrats are urging more time to overcome the website woes. One Democrat, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, has urged delaying the deadline to register for coverage.

Going ‘Live’

CGI Group Inc., the main contractor for the exchanges, told lawmakers today it did nothing wrong and blamed another vendor and a federal agency for website flaws hobbling online registration.

“It was not our decision to go live,” Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at the company’s CGI Federal Inc. unit, said in today’s testimony. The decision was made by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, she said.

Even so, CGI thought the site was ready to debut on time and didn’t make a recommendation to delay the launch, she said.

The site doesn’t need six months to eliminate the flaws, is ''improving every day’’ and will be ready to meet all deadlines, she said.

In response to a question from Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, Campbell responded, “I cannot give you an exact date” for when the flaws will be eliminated.

‘Bottleneck’ Created

Campbell pointed at another vendor during the hearing, saying Quality Software Services Inc., owned by UnitedHealth Group Inc., helped design a system that created a “bottleneck” blocking a majority of users from signing up.

Republicans singled out the website defects less than a week after the end of a partial government shutdown triggered by the party’s opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. House Republicans have been seeking to delay the Obama health-care law.

“The rollout of Obamacare is nothing short of a debacle,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia told reporters yesterday in Washington.

Today’s hearing is meant to determine whether breakdowns at were caused by the contractors, or “were they told to do it this way” by the Department of Health and Human Services, Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters yesterday in Washington.

Contractors Testifying

In addition to CGI Federal, based in Fairfax, Virginia, and the Quality Software Services unit of Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group, the committee heard from Equifax Workforce Solutions, a unit of Atlanta-based Equifax Inc., and a U.S. unit of Serco Group Plc, a U.K. services provider.

CGI, which has been awarded more than $420 million in contracts tied to the health-care law, didn’t identify Quality Software by name in the written testimony.

The initial site problems were tied to a tool that allows users to create secure accounts developed by another contractor, Campbell said. It was provided by Quality Software, which was awarded more than $150 million in contracts tied to Obamacare, according to an analysis by Peter Gosselin, a senior health analyst with Bloomberg Government in Washington.

Quality Software’s tool is now working, Andrew Slavitt, group executive vice president for the UnitedHealth division responsible for the unit, said in testimony.

The company was involved in testing of exchange work done by others and “made everyone aware of the risks that we saw,” he said. It didn’t make a recommendation to delay the site’s debut either, he said.

The Energy and Commerce hearing is the first of several planned in the House. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will appear before the committee Oct. 30.

The Ways and Means Committee scheduled a hearing Oct. 29 with the head of Medicaid and Medicare Services, which is running the health-care exchanges.

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