After three years of trying to dismantle Obamacare, House Republicans now are seeking to use the website’s flawed debut to hasten its collapse.
The pivot from a failed legislative assault to investigating the troubled rollout at oversight hearings follows a Republican campaign to choke off the law’s funding, which led to the first partial government shutdown in 17 years. The shift may help Republican leaders avoid a similar legislative fight, which hurt the party in public opinion polls.
A House hearing yesterday was the first salvo in the fresh line of attack, as Republicans blamed President Barack Obama’s administration for the shortcomings of the health insurance exchange website that contractors said wasn’t adequately tested.
Next week, the same lawmakers will aim their questions at Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, has said Sebelius should resign over the flawed debut.
“Their effort, obviously, isn’t to make this better, but to use the website and the glitches as an excuse to defund or repeal Obamacare,” Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said of the Republicans during the hearing.
The 16-day partial government shutdown, which was spurred by the insistence of Republicans who control the House to defund Obamacare, resulted in a record-low 28 percent favorability rating for the party, according to a Gallup Poll. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to avoid another shutdown, while House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t made a similar vow.
“The problems with healthcare.gov are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the president’s law,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.
Oversight hearings are a favorite tactic among House Republicans, who in the past year have investigated the Obama administration’s reporting of the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, and whether the administration played a role in the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups.
Representative Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said yesterday in a letter to Sebelius that Issa’s committee would subpoena her department if she doesn’t turn over information about healthcare.gov by Oct. 28.
Issa and Alexander want the agency to list deficiencies with the site and contractors involved, the cost of fixes, and the number of people who have enrolled -- a figure Sebelius’s department has repeatedly refused to provide.
“Your failure to provide Congress information that would shed additional light on these problems is a troubling indication that you are refusing to hold people accountable for this costly and failed enterprise,” Issa and Alexander wrote.
In addition to Sebelius’s appearance before the House Energy and Commerce panel on Oct. 30, Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that oversees the website, is scheduled to appear at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Oct. 29.
“She better come with some answers,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said of Sebelius yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
“The majority of people calling for me to resign, I would say, are people I don’t work for and who did not want this program to work in the first place,” Sebelius said yesterday after touring a call center near Phoenix. No one has been fired, she said.
Highlighting defects with the law, such as the troubled website, may discourage young, healthy, web-savvy consumers whose participation is critical to offset the risk of insuring older, sticker people. The website’s flaws made it harder for people to enroll in health plans, marring its Oct. 1 debut and giving critics ammunition to undercut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
“The economics of it are the challenge,” said Matt McDonald, an adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 Republican presidential campaign and a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, a Washington-based consulting group. “The longer the site is broken, the worse the risk pool gets. If that happens, then you can get a vicious cycle where it collapses.”
Ten Democratic senators, including seven up for re-election in 2014, in a letter are urging Sebelius to extend the deadline to sign up, citing delays caused by the website’s failures.
The letter was signed by Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Udall of Colorado and Tom Udall of New Mexico, whose terms end in 2014. Also signing were Dianne Feinstein of California, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
Their counterparts in the House yesterday accused Republicans of trying to exploit -- instead of fix -- the health law’s woes.
“You are trying to scare people so they don’t apply,” Pallone told his Republican colleagues at the hearing. “That’s all it is, hoping people won’t apply.”
The hearing, which was intended to determine whether website breakdowns were caused by the contractors, frequently veered into partisan attacks. Republicans said the website’s woes indicate deeper problems with the health-care law.
“It’s a focus on the failure of the law in general -- the fact that there were so many broken promises made by the president about what this law would do,” said Representative Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican.
Contractors told lawmakers yesterday that the federal government was responsible for final, end-to-end testing of the health insurance marketplace and didn’t do so until two weeks or less before the site’s Oct. 1 debut. Officials from units of CGI Group Inc. (GIB/A) and UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH:US) said testing should have started months -- instead of weeks -- before the launch.
“It would have been better to have more time,” said Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president at CGI Federal Inc., a unit of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc. that served as the main contractor for the site.
Both vendors blamed their customer, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for the site’s failures, noting the U.S. agency that is part of the Department of Health and Human Services made all final decisions about its operations.
Quality Software Services Inc., the UnitedHealth unit that worked on the exchange, tested other vendors’ work and warned the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about potential shortfalls, said Andrew Slavitt, group executive vice president for the division responsible for the unit.
“All of the risks that we saw and all of the concerns that we had regarding testing were all shared with” the agency,’’ he said during the hearing.’’
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