House Democrats Angry At Botched Obamacare Website Rollout

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J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Storm clouds hang over Capitol Hill on Sept. 27, 2013.

After a Wednesday morning meeting with two Obama Administration officials involved in the new online health ­insurance marketplace, House Democrats could not specifically identify the site’s problems, much less explain how long the contractors would need to fix them. The Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the federal insurance exchange, initially blamed high traffic, but has since acknowledged issues with the site’s software, affecting tasks as essential as creating an account.

After the meeting, many Democrats expressed anger at the way the matter was being handled by the White House. “Some of us, myself included, are somewhat resentful [and] upset, about the apparent incompetency in designing and rolling this thing out,” said Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.). “Who was it that said we are going to go ahead knowing it doesn’t work?”

“I would fire that person,” Nolan added.

Despite requests, the officials at the briefing, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services deputy administrator Gary Cohen and CMS communications director Julie Bataille, did not tell the House Democrats when the website would be fully up and running. “Well we’re working on it,” the officials replied, according to Nolan. “That’s not good enough,” Nolan told TIME. “We don’t have a timeline, but December 15 is a key date,” confirmed Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), referring to the date applicants need to be enrolled if they want to have insurance starting January 1, 2014.

Without a firm grip of the problems, or an idea of when they could be solved, Democrats spoke about the possibility of voting to delay the penalty for those without insurance who fail to sign up for new coverage, an unsavory position after defending ObamaCare tooth-and-nail over the past month. “If there are problems and people need more time, we’ve got to look at that,” said Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.). “And I think that’s one of the options the White House is looking at.”

“It’s not about the time, it’s about getting it right,” says Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.). “And then you can look to see whether it needs to be a month delay or a two month delay, or whatever.”

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who is in the midst of a tough reelection campaign, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) are advocating for an extension of open enrollment beyond the current end date of March 31, 2014. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are other Democrats who may also feel the pull of their 2014 campaigns. About 30% of Americans say the online health insurance exchanges are working “very well ” or “fairly well,” while 46% say they are not, according to a Pew poll released this week.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, CMS Director Marilyn Tavenner, and Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met with some of the most prominent health insurance executives in the country Wednesday, including the CEOs of Aetna, Humana, CareFirst, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Wellpoint, and Kaiser Permanente, to discuss how to fix some of the “kinks.” On Wednesday, Sebelius wrote on the HHS blog that the department will start providing updates through regular blogs and CMS press telebriefings. Earlier this week, Sebelius agreed to testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee on Oct. 30. Whether the new, increased effort to keep the public informed will calm the clamor is yet to be seen.

“I don’t think anybody is happy here,” said Garcia. “These are serious, functional issues, and we have to address them.”

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