Obamacare grillings start in Senate
By: Jennifer Haberkorn
November 5, 2013 08:22 AM EST
One of the Obama administration’s top health care officials on Tuesday will face a Senate grilling on the twin problems overshadowing the start of Obamacare — the faulty website and the wave of health plan cancellations despite promises that Americans could keep their coverage.
Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, plans to tell the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that HealthCare.gov is slowly improving.
“We are seeing improvements each week and by the end of November the experience on the site will be smooth for the vast majority of users,” she wrote in her written testimony, obtained by POLITICO. She also wrote that CMS has added capacity by doubling the number of servers.
The hearing comes as Washington enters week No. 6 of HealthCare.gov problems and amid growing questions about how the rollout could have gone so badly. It’s the second week of back-to-back testimony from Tavenner and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Last week, both faced questions from GOP-led House committees. This week they go before Democratic-led Senate committees, where lawmakers who fought hard for the passage of the health care law are disturbed by a launch that Sebelius herself labeled a “debacle.”
Tavenner, who was confirmed by the Senate in May with 91 votes, is expected to face an easier hearing than Sebelius. The CMS chief is closer to the decision-making process– Sebelius pointed to her as the official who make the controversial decision to shut off “window browsing” for health plan options on the website two weeks before enrollment began. But Sebelius is closer to the White House and viewed as more political.
Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) says he wants straight answers to questions on when HealthCare.gov will be working, why testing wasn’t done and why the severity of the problems weren’t foreseen.
Harkin, one of Obamacare’s most ardent supporters, isn’t afraid to shoot arrows. He held up Tavenner’s confirmation in May when the White House went back on its promise to him to stop raiding Obamacare’s prevention fund, which he authored. He’s been vocal in his criticism of the White House when he feels the administration is not implementing the law properly.
“I’m frustrated on two fronts,” Harkin said. “I’m frustrated somewhat on the administration that they didn’t handle this right, in terms of making sure it was all tested and ready to go. And I’m frustrated with the Republicans who keep attacking it and putting out false information, scaring the public rather than working with us to try to make it work better.”
The Obama administration has pledged to have the website functioning for the “vast” majority of users by the end of the month. In the meantime, President Barack Obama has urged patience, encouraging Americans to sign up by phone or by paper while the website is down, even though both those alternates rely on the website to complete enrollment.
“We knew we were going to get resistance,” Obama said Monday at a rally hosted by his former political arm, Organizing for Action. “Maybe not the same degree as we’ve gotten. But there’s a reason why this hasn’t gotten done before,” he said, referring to the decades it took Democrats to get a health law passed.
Democrats want to know what went wrong with HealthCare.gov and how soon it will be repaired. Republicans, meanwhile, are going to focus on what they call a string of broken promises: that premiums would remain low and that consumers would be able to keep their insurance plans.
It’s likely to amount to a rough few hours for Tavenner — and the tough spots won’t only come from the GOP.
Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the HELP committee, is expecting some “rough moments” during questions from Democrats and says Tavenner could get “beat up pretty well” by Republicans, too.
He plans to focus on the success in Connecticut, a state that is running its own exchange and where the early enrollment experience has been much better than in states using the federal government’s HealthCare.gov as the sign-up portal.
“I’m upset with the website rollout but I want people to understand there are states like Connecticut that have demonstrated that the product will sell once the technology catches up,” he said.
Senate Republicans will seize opportunities to further expose flaws.
“Senate Health committee Republicans will focus on the broken law and the president’s broken promises,” a senior HELP committee aide said. “The broken website is an important symbol of how bad this law is for Americans, but while websites can be fixed, Democrats have proven thus far to be resistant to admitting that the law was sold under false pretenses and needs to be replaced with something that works.”
Sebelius is due to testify in front of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.