Officials knew small biz exchange wasn't ready, emails show

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Top ObamaCare officials knew in August that the online enrollment system for small businesses wouldn’t be ready to launch on Oct. 1, according to new internal emails released by House Republicans.

Documents released Friday show that federal health officials believed a one-month delay of  the SHOP program would be needed weeks before it was announced in September.

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GOP lawmakers blasted the administration as misleading the public in light of a second delay, announced just before Thanksgiving, that pushed the launch of SHOP back until November of 2014.

"As the paper trail broadens, we see more and more evidence that the administration was fully aware its signature health care law was not ready for prime time," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), whose panel released the emails.

"The documents we are now reviewing tell a much, much different story than what officials testified to Congress."

The communications from July 26 and Aug. 13 show a growing awareness at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that CGI Federal, the private contractor in charge of SHOP, would not deliver the product on time.

Leaders at CGI promised on Aug. 13 that the program's main components would be ready on Nov. 1 and 15, requiring CMS to announce a delay of one month and six weeks, respectively.

A top CMS official replied: "Can we sign this [timeline] with blood?"

Another official noted that colleague Chiquita Brooks-Lasure, a deputy policy director at CMS, had testified before the House Small Business Committee that the SHOP functions would go live in Oct. 1.

The saga reveals confusion at CMS regarding the status of CGI's work and plans for rolling out SHOP.

Federal officials also expressed concern about launching the program's two components at different times, arguing it would create confusion for users.

A spokeswoman at CMS said the emails reflect discussions among lower-level officials who did not make the final call about delaying the SHOP site.

“The emails in question are between a small group of individuals involved in a broader decision-making process, and they reflect one piece of many conversations about managing deliverables and communicating expectations,” the spokesman said in a statement.

“The final decision to delay SHOP enrollment functions was not made until mid-September, and CMS announced the delay once we had complete information about what functionality would be available for small business owners on Oct. 1st.”

CMS announced the latest SHOP delay on Nov. 27, arguing that it resulted from the administration's focus on fixing the individual exchange.

— This story was updated at 12:36 p.m.