'Best and brightest' techies drafted to fix Obamacare computer glitches

Republican lawmakers are demanding that HHS Secretary Sebelius tell them how and why the Obamacare rollout got bogged down with computer problems. HHS says it’s getting expert help.

Al Behrman/AP
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius discusses the federal health-care overhaul during a panel discussion at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College Oct. 16 in Cincinnati. For the first month alone, the Obama administration projected that nearly a half million people would sign up for the new health insurance markets, but that was before the markets opened to a cascade of computer problems.

Two big problems hit the Obama White House on Oct. 1: the government shutdown, which saw hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed, national parks closed, and other disruptions. And the launch of the Affordable Care Act, which was always going to be tricky.

The first problem was solved – temporarily, at least – when Republicans and Democrats worked out a stopgap spending deal, also heading off (for now) a government default on its debts. By most accounts, the White House came out the winner, although President Obama was careful not to beat his chest too much about it.

The second problem – the president’s signature achievement so far, known as “Obamacare” – has only gotten worse.

The White House reported this weekend that about 19 million people have visited HealthCare.gov and 476,000 individuals have applied online for health insurance.

But officials have yet to say how many people have actually bought a policy. In any case, it's a long way from the 7 million people the administration wants to see enrolled for health insurance through online exchanges during the six-month sign-up period.

Computer “glitches” seem massive. USA Today reports that "the federal health care exchange was built using 10-year-old technology that may require constant fixes and updates for the next six months and the eventual overhaul of the entire system."

Mr. Obama, presumably, has been asking sharp questions of his staff.

"I think that there's no one more frustrated than the president at the difficulty in the website," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on NBC's “Meet the Press” Sunday.

The coming week should see significant political activity surrounding Obamacare.

Obama is scheduled to speak about it at a health-care event Monday.

House Republicans, who had predicted for months that Obamacare implementation would be a “train wreck,” have scheduled the first hearings into the severe flaws in the computer system for this coming week, Politico.com reports. So far Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has declined to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“As the news continues to get worse, it’s time for Secretary Sebelius to provide answers to Congress,” the committee said in a statement Friday. Republican lawmakers are particularly miffed that Secretary Sebelius went on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” but so far has declined to appear before Congress.

“Ultimately, Secretary Sebelius will testify,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois told “Fox News Sunday,” although he did not say if “ultimately” might include this Thursday’s scheduled hearing in the House.

Democrats like Senator Durbin and other party leaders in Congress are in an embarrassing spot – having to publicly support a program that not all favored.

“What has happened is unacceptable,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." “There is much that needs to be done to correct the situation."

"This has to be fixed but what doesn't have to be fixed is the fact that tens of millions more people will have access to affordable quality health care," she added.

The answer, Sen. John McCain said on CNN Sunday, is to “send Air Force One out to Silicon Valley, load it up with some smart people, bring them back to Washington, and fix this problem.”

Apparently, that’s sort of what the administration has in mind.

In a blog post Sunday, the Department of Health and Human Services said this:

“Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.

“We’re also putting in place tools and processes to aggressively monitor and identify parts of HealthCare.gov where individuals are encountering errors or having difficulty using the site, so we can prioritize and fix them.

“We are also defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis.”

“The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people,” HHS said – an acknowledgment with which there is universal agreement.

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