Congress turns up the heat in hunt for Obamacare answers

Disapproval ratings of Obamacare have spiked to a new high since the law was passed in 2010. Photo courtesy Healthcare.gov

The Republican-led House plans on turning up the heat on the Obama administration once again on Wednesday with a set of hearings to examine the ongoing problems with the new Obamacare marketplaces, particularly the security risks on the new marketplace websites.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee invited five administration officials to testify Wednesday morning on the rollout of HealthCare.gov, the dysfunctional website that serves as a portal to the Obamacare marketplaces for consumers in 36 states. One person they expect to hear from is Henry Chao, HealthCare.gov's chief project manager at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). According to excerpts CBS News obtained of closed-door testimony that Chao gave the committee earlier this month, he said he was unaware of a memo that laid out major security risks with the program.

The Sept. 3 memo -- written by Tony Trenkle, a CMS official who retired last week -- said that "the threat and risk potential (to the system) is limitless." While he hadn't seen the memo, Chao told the committee that security gaps in the Obamacare system could lead to identity theft, unauthorized access and misrouted data.

The committee is also calling on White House chief technology officer Todd Park to testify, and after the administration said Park was too busy to attend Wednesday's hearing, committee Republicans sent him a subpoena. Democrats on the Oversight Committee have protested the subpoena, arguing that Park should be allowed to testify in December, after the administration has had time to fix the problems with HealthCare.gov. To drive home that point, three technology experts with ties to the administration started the websiteLetToddWork.org.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday declined to say whether Park would testify on Wednesday, saying the Office of Science and Technology was still reviewing the subpoena. Carney called the subpoena "an unfortunate and unnecessary step since we made clear several times that Todd Park is willing to testify. The issue for us is not a question of if he will testify but when."

Carney noted that committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said last month on CBS' Face the Nation, "I hope for the American people that they can fix this and fix it quickly." If Issa really felt that way, Carney said, he would let Park work. "Todd Park is very much engaged in the effort of fixing it as quickly as possible," he said.

Meanwhile, the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday is holding its own hearing entitled, "Cyber Side-Effects: How Secure is the Personal Information Entered into the Flawed HealthCare.gov?" The committee has invited officials from the Department of Homeland Security as well as executives from technology companies FMS, Inc. and Lunarline.

"As Americans start to submit their personal information, we must examine how safe that information is once it's placed on Healthcare.gov, the federal healthcare exchanges and the Datahub," committee chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement.

Initial reports show that only around 100,000 people have finished the enrollment process on HealthCare.gov and the state-run Obamacare websites so far -- well below the enrollment figures the administration was expecting by this point. The administration would not confirm those reports but will release official enrollment figures for the month of October sometime this week.

"I think it's fair to say that the enrollment figures are going to be low and were going to be low anyway," Carney said Tuesday, noting that the administration expects more people to sign up at the end of the six-month enrollment period. "They will be significantly lower because of the challenges posed by the faulty website."

On Tuesday, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department started reaching out to people who tried to shop for health insurance on HealthCare.gov but were stymied by the website's technical flaws. CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said HHS started sending emails to 275,000 people who logged on to HealthCare.gov but were unable to create an account, inviting them to come back and try again.

The administration insists the website will be running smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November. Carney on Tuesday noted that the administration has "expanded our efforts to create ways through which Americans can get information about the options available to them," including through in-person consultations, over the phone. He declined to say, however, whether the administration has any backup plan for a scenario in which the website isn't functioning by the end of the month. According to some reports, as the administration considers how to help consumers, insurers have suggested they could play a larger role and let people sign up for insurance directly on their own websites.

While Mr. Obama's team works on fixing the website, it's also exploring ways to help people who have been dropped from their current insurance plans but may find their new options too expensive.

"The president has tasked his team with looking at a range of options, as he said, to make sure that nobody is put in a position where their plans have been canceled and they can't afford a better plan, even though they'd like to have a better plan," Carney said Tuesday. He said Mr. Obama agrees with former President Bill Clinton, who said in an interview that Mr. Obama should "honor the commitment" to let those who like their current insurance keep that insurance.

The House plans to vote this week on a bill that would aim to resolve the issue. The bill, which is called the "Keep Your Health Plan Act" and has 88 co-sponsors in the House, would allow plans that existed on the individual market as of Jan. 1, 2013 to stay in effect through 2014.

Carney said the White House opposes the House bill because it would allow insurers to sell 2013 plans in 2014 to anyone, not just customers who already have those plans. That, he said, "creates all sorts of problems for insurers trying to meet the basic standards" set by the Affordable Care Act, undermining the whole law.

"We do not see that as fixing the problem, we see that as throwing the baby out with the bath water," Carney said.

In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the No. 2 Democrat in the House, left open the possibility that some Democrats could support the "Keep Your Health Plan Act." Hoyer said, "I'm inclined not to be for" the bill, but he added, I "don't want to make that definitive."


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