Serious Obamacare concerns obscured by politics

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

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that there are serious concerns about the botched HealthCare.gov rollout and potential security issues on the site, but as Congress tries to get to the bottom of the site's problems, politics often gets in the way.

"The exchanges need to be fixed, and they need to be fixed fast," Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said Tuesday in a House Energy and Commerce Committee subpanel hearing. However, she added, "We should not create smoke if there's no fire."

The hearing was convened to examine security issues on HealthCare.gov and opened with subpanel chairman Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., charging that the website "screams, 'If you like my health care information, maybe you can steal it.'"

DeGette pointed out that in order to apply for insurance on HealthCare.gov, no one has to hand over any health information (only personally identifiable information like a Social Security number). "My fear is that today's hearing is less about the facts of security of HealthCare.gov and more about political points and undermining the ACA," she said.

Meanwhile, DeGette and other Democrats on the subcommittee complained Tuesday that their Republican colleagues handed over new documents about the botched Obamacare rollout to the press before giving them to Democrats.

As first reported by the Washington Post, the new documents provide evidence that the White House and Health and Human Services were warned as early as April about the significant problems with HealthCare.gov.

An analysis produced by McKinsey & Co. months ago showed that the federal government was relying too heavily on contractors to build the site, not allotting enough time to test the site, and did not have enough communication with the contractors on the project.

DeGette; Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.; sent a letter to Murphy and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., on Tuesday complaining that even though Republicans received these new documents about the McKinsey report on Nov. 14, they only handed some of the documents to Democratic committee staffers on Monday. The rest of the documents were released to Democrats at apparently the same time they were published by the Washington Post.

"Excluding Democratic members from timely access to the full Committee record calls into question the credibility and fairness of the Committee's inquiry," the Democrats' letter said.

Though Tuesday's hearing was intended to focus on security, lawmakers spent significant time questioning their main witness -- Henry Chao, HealthCare.gov's chief project manager at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) -- about the McKinsey report.

Chao said that even though he was in charge of HealthCare.gov oversight for CMS, he never saw the final McKinsey report. Some of the officials who reportedly saw the analysis include HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, then-acting CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner, White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, Obama health policy adviser Jeanne Lambrew, and then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Childress.

However, Chao wrote in a July email that he was concerned contractors working on the site could "crash the plane at take-off." Earlier in the year, Chao reportedly said of the Obamacare rollout, "Let's just make sure it's not a third-world experience."

Chao explained to the committee Tuesday that he "has a lot of anxiety" and was simply trying to convey a sense of urgency to his colleagues. However, he said he never believed that HealthCare.gov wasn't going to be ready on Oct. 1, when it launched.

As for security on the site, Chao said there have been no successful breaches of HealthCare.gov. "Security vulnerabilities have not necessarily been reported in terms of it being a security threat," he said. Rather, the site suffered from accidental disclosure of personally identifiable information, but that issue has been addressed, he said.

At a separate hearing Tuesday, David Kennedy, head of computer security consulting firm TrustedSec LLC, presented to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee a 17-page report describing the security vulnerabilities on HealthCare.gov.

"There are actual, live vulnerabilities on the site now," Kennedy told Reuters before the hearing, adding that user data is at "critical risk."

The ongoing problems with the rollout of the new Obamacare marketplaces has taken a significant toll on President Obama's approval ratings and public approval ratings of the law. According to a new Washington Post/ ABC News poll, as many as 57 percent of Americans oppose the Affordable Care Act, while 46 percent say they strongly oppose it.

The problems have enabled Republicans to step up their already-harsh attacks against the law. At an event hosted by the Wall Street Journal Monday night, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., said the law "is wrong, it's a failure, it's the most extraordinary overreach of government power in the history of our country."

Asked about the next steps House Republicans will take to resolve certain problems with the law, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Tuesday had no specific response.

"We're going to continue to do oversight so that we understand exactly what's happening out there," Boehner said. "Our members are going to continue to collect stories. No decisions on what it is that we may or may not do. But we're gonna do everything we can to try to protect the American people from this awful law."

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