Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, apologized Tuesday before a congressional panel for the botched launch of HealthCare.Gov.
“I want to apologize to [the American people] that the website has not worked as well as it should,” she said. “We know how desperately you need affordable coverage … this initial experience has not lived up to our expectations or the expectations of the American people and it is not acceptable.”
Her agency is overseeing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) kicked off the public grilling by saying Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told his committee “a dozen times that the administration would be ready” for the Oct. 1 rollout date.
“We now know this administration was not ready,” he said, adding that if CMS had been more transparent about the problems it faced in the run-up, “many of these glitches could have been avoided.”
Camp prodded Tavenner in an attempt to find out how many people have enrolled in the federal exchanges, but she consistently repeated the administration line that those numbers won’t be available until later next month.
“We expect the initial numbers to be small,” she admitted, but argued that the universal healthcare coverage spearheaded by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Massachusetts also had a small number of initial applicants.
It’s critical for the administration to get HealthCare.Gov up and running quickly because 2015 insurance premiums will be set based on the demogaphic make-up of those who have enrolled by March 31, 2014.
An imbalanced risk pool, potentially affected by young and healthy consumers not signing up because of the website issues, could lead to premium spikes
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, defended the administration.
He said the “basic reality” was that Democrats want the law to work, while Republicans don’t, which he said was “reflected in their zeal” to shutdown the government over the law.
The administration has initiated a “tech surge” aimed at fixing the broken website.
President Obama brought in former Office of Management and Budget director Jeff Zients, who has vowed that the website will be running smoothly for most users by Nov. 30, two months after the Oct. 1 rollout date.
Some of the primary healthcare contractors charged with building the site blamed Tavenner’s agency for the website’s myriad problems at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week.
The contractors denied responsibility for the system's problems. They suggested that HHS had failed to effectively coordinate the project, and said that they didn’t have enough time to properly test the site.
According to the witnesses, CMS was aware of all the problems in the lead-up to the launch, but denied a request by one of the contractors for additional time to test the site, although none of the contractors said it was under their purview to suggest delaying the launch.
Under questioning from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Tavenner said she never pushed Sebelius to delay the exchanges.
She said there were some aspects of the rollout, like the Spanish language website, that she told the secretary needed more time, and which were subsequently delayed.
Sebelius has been the primary target of ObamaCare critics and lawmakers frustrated with the rollout. Dozens of Republicans have called on her to resign, and her testimony in front of the same committee on Wednesday will likely produce more fireworks.
Still, on Tuesday, Nunes and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) didn’t conceal their frustration with Tavenner. The two teamed up to press her on what they say are loopholes in the site that could lead unsuspecting consumers to input information that could lead them to having their tax rebates seized.
“I find it funny I have to explain the law to an administration official,” Ryan said.
Updated at 11:40 a.m.