Partisan slugfest at ObamaCare hearing

Anne Wernikoff

The bad blood between Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) came to a boil during a Thursday hearing on ObamaCare.

The healthcare officials called to testify served primarily as a sounding board for both parties. Republicans accused the administration of obstructing its ObamaCare investigation and ignoring security warnings, while Democrats accused Republicans of recklessly handling sensitive material and cherry-picking data to mislead the public.

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Issa made a memo from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) director Teresa Fryer the central focus of the hearing. The two sides have been at loggerheads at over the importance of the memo for more than a month.

“The administration has steadfastly denied the existence of security problems, shortcomings, or the lack of security testing,” Issa said according to prepared remarks. “For many Americans — myself included — it seems to defy common sense that a website plagued by functional problems has security functioning at a near perfect level.”

In the September letter, Fryer expressed concern that HealthCare.gov did not meet security requirements, that she wasn’t confident personal information entered on the site would be protected, and that the federal marketplace may not be ready for the Oct. 1 launch.

Republicans hammered Fryer on the memo, and pressed the other two witnesses, Kevin Charest, the Chief Information Officer at Health and Human Services (HHS), and HHS Chief Information Officer Frank Baitman, as to why the HealthCare.gov rollout was allowed to continue while security questions lingered.

Fryer testified that the memo was merely a snapshot of where things stood in September, and that she never sent or finished verifying the contents of the memo because her concerns were later addressed.

Frustrated Democrats on the panel said the Republican focus on the memo was further evidence that the GOP is seeking to scare potential ObamaCare consumers away from the federal enrollment website, which they say is secure.

In his opening remarks, Cummings dismissed the premise of the hearing, choosing instead to launch an impassioned defense of ObamaCare, and to lampoon Issa and Republicans for what he said were politically-motivated attempts to undermine the law.

“Republicans are still obsessed with killing this law,” he said. “After more than 40 votes in the House, they shut down the government in an unsuccessful attempt to de-fund the law. Now they have shifted to a new tactic — hot off the press — scaring people away from the HealthCare.gov website.”
 
Cummings again accused Issa of “cherry-picking” information in an attempt to mislead the public about security concerns with the website.

Many of the frustrations expressed Thursday have been playing out publicly in the days and weeks leading up to the hearing.

Issa has previously accused Sebelius of providing “false and misleading” testimony to Congress and threatened to open an investigation, and on Wednesday accused HHS of intentionally dodging his briefings. Democrats point to the dozens of hearings and briefings healthcare officials have participated in.
 
The chairman has also been furious that he had to subpoena document from ObamaCare contractor MITRE Corp., after HHS allowed the Oversight Committee to view documents in a secure room, but refused to hand over hard copies.

“Despite the active and illegal efforts of HHS to keep them out of the Committee’s hands — we have obtained security testing results prepared by HealthCare.gov contractor MITRE,” Issa said Thursday.
 
MITRE Corp. said the documents included “software code and other technical information that is highly sensitive and could give hackers a roadmap to compromise the security of the website and the personal information of consumers.”
 
Democrats said Issa couldn’t be trusted with them because he has a history of leaks, and warned that his security protocols surrounding the sensitive material were lacking, and could lead to the information being illicitly obtained by outside groups.

Rep. Gerry Connelly (D-Va.) on Thursday said that leaks from Issa’s office, and his lack of security protocols around sensitive documents, could compromise the very security the panel’s hearing purported to address.