After apologizing to the American public for the faulty launch of HealthCare.gov, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner
told congressional lawmakers that the federal website is fixable and will be operating smoothly for the vast majority of users by late next month.
That message and timeline was first announced last week by Jeffrey Zients—the former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget who was brought in to assess the federal website's problems—and reiterated by Tavenner when she faced the influential House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.
Tavenner, a nurse who previously served as Virginia's secretary of health and human resources and also as an executive with HCA Corp., is the first Obama administration official to testify before lawmakers about the botched rollout of the federal website, which is one way consumers can purchase private health plans in the health insurance exchanges
"We know that consumers are eager to purchase this coverage, and to the millions of Americans who attempted to use HealthCare.gov to shop and enroll in healthcare coverage, I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should," Tavenner said in her opening remarks in a hearing that spanned nearly three hours. "We know how desperately you need affordable coverage. I want to assure you that HealthCare.gov can and will be fixed and we are working around the clock to deliver the shopping experience you deserve."
She attributed the problems to higher-than-expected traffic on the site and also “a subset of contracts for HealthCare.gov that have not met expectations.” Pressed to elaborate, she noted “issues with timing of delivery” experienced with work performed by CGI Federal, the primary contractor on the site.
Lawmakers asked Tavenner why she believes that the federal website's kinks will be ironed out by late November, given that she and other administration officials promised on several occasions that the federal online system would be ready Oct. 1. She responded that the CMS has added capacity to improve system performance and that the agency and its technical experts have identified problems with the website and how long it will take to correct those problems.
House Republicans pressed Tavenner repeatedly for enrollment figures. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) noted that his GOP colleagues asked it more than 20 times. Tavenner gave the same answer each time: HHS will release those numbers in mid-November.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) appeared doubtful that the administration will meet its target of enrolling about 7 million uninsured Americans by late March.
Camp also said it appeared unlikely that the exchange plans will enroll enough young and healthy members this year to achieve a viable risk pool—2.3 million by the CMS' estimate. Premiums, he said, will "go through the roof" as insurers adjust prices in 2015 to reflect the actual enrollee demographic.
Tavenner, though, responded only that the initial round of premiums for plans did not deliver the rate shock that some naysayers predicted. "We actually saw a very competitive marketplace,” she said. “In fact, we have over 200 issuers just in the federal exchange alone who have offered more than 3,000 plans at very competitive prices," she continued. "Some markets have as many as 54 plans in a market. We've also seen 25% new issuers in markets. So far what we've seen is the absolute opposite of what you're suggesting.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) asked Tavenner what the CMS is doing to verify that consumers are actually eligible for premium subsidies, noting that consumers risk having the Internal Revenue Service dock their income tax returns if they mistakenly collect credits. For instance, Ryan said, there is nothing on HealthCare.gov informing consumers that if they are under the age of 26 and eligible for insurance on their parents' health plans, then they aren't eligible for a subsidy.
And it wasn't just House Republicans who criticized Tavenner for the website's problems in the last month. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), who is running for governor of her state, told Tavenner that the Obama administration failed in its testing of the website ahead of the launch and failed the American people. The administration, she said, can offer no more excuses.
"That initial experience has actually done some damage to Americans' confidence in this website, in the marketplace, and even potentially in the options that they would have available to get health coverage,” Schwartz said. “This is not only an opportunity for millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans to get affordable, meaningful coverage, but it's also an obligation under law to make sure this website works.”Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter: @MHjzigmond