WASHINGTON – The showdown between Congress and the White House over the foibles of the healthcare reform law – popularly known as Obamacare – is starting to grow testier.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, has issued a subpoena to compel Todd Park, President Obama’s chief technology officer, to appear before his panel on Wednesday to explain the troubled rollout of healthcare.gov, the website that plays an essential role in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Issa said he issued a subpoena after Park balked at testifying before the committee, explaining that he is heavily involved in correcting the problems that have plagued healthcare.gov since its launch. Donna Pignatelli informed Issa that Park “is currently occupied full time on the critically important work of improving the website for the millions of Americans seeking affordable health insurance options.” Park expressed a willingness to meet with the committee informally at the end of November and then appear publicly before the panel in early December.
Issa responded by issuing the subpoena, asserting that Park’s statement is crucial to the committee’s understanding of what went wrong and what the Obama administration is doing to fix it.
“Millions of Americans have lost their health insurance and are rapidly approaching a point where they must begin to prepare for the possibility of having no health insurance,” Issa said in the subpoena letter demanding Park’s appearance. “They deserve your sworn testimony before their elected representatives about what went wrong.”
The subpoena comes on the heels of Issa’s claim that Park lied about the capabilities of healthcare.gov. Appearing on Fox News last week, the chairman said Park was “engaging in a pattern of interference and false statements.”
Park said on Oct. 6 – five days after the launch — that officials planned for healthcare.gov to draw approximately 60,000 simultaneous users. Issa said documents show the administration was actually targeting only 10,000 concurrent users and wound up handling about 1,100 before response time got too high.
“Park knew the facts — had to know the facts,” Issa said.
“This was a failure to launch that they knew about on Sept. 30 and went ahead anyway,” he told Fox News.
Issa also said Park made “a false statement” when he attributed the site’s problems to high consumer volume.
“Clearly the president had an opportunity with his lead contractors and his technology people to take the time out that Congress was asking them to take, to delay the launch at least until security and speed concerns and so on could be addressed — they didn’t do it,” he said.
Issa’s subpoena was not well received. Pignatelli dispatched a second letter asserting that compelling Park to testify at this time “is more likely to hurt rather than help the goal of fixing the website as soon as possible.”
“You explained that the committee feels it has a duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch, but conspicuously absent from your letter was any statement or justification that would explain the legislative need to compel Mr. Park to appear next week as opposed to a few weeks from now,” Pignatelli wrote.
Meanwhile, three Park supporters have started a website, Let Todd Work, urging Congress to permit Park to continue his work on healthcare.com uninterrupted.
“On the evening of November 8th, Todd Park was subpoenaed by Congressman Darrell Issa to testify in front of Congress about whether or not Healthcare.gov was prepared on launch day,” the site maintains. “Now, instead of continuing to fix Healthcare.gov (a mess he did not make), Mr. Park has to spend his hours preparing for his testimony.”
Park, the site said, “is a fantastic public servant, who cares about making government more effective and accountable, just like Mr. Issa. We hope that they can work together on solving the policies that enabled healthcare.gov to fail in the first place.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, offered the most vigorous objections, blasting Issa’s actions and demanding the subpoena’s withdrawal, maintaining that the chairman was misinterpreting the test results.
“Yesterday, you went on national television and made extremely serious allegations against U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, essentially accusing them of lying to the American people about the Healthcare.gov website,” Cummings said. “You then used these alleged falsehoods to justify your threat to subpoena Mr. Park to force him to appear before the committee next week to answer your allegations. Based on information obtained by the committee a full week ago, however, it appears that your attacks against Mr. Park and Mr. Carney are unfounded and that your statements yesterday either misunderstood or mischaracterized the information the committee obtained. In either case, I believe it is important to correct the public record and I request that you apologize to these officials for the unsubstantiated accusations against them.”
Cummings said Issa apparently mistook the results of a smaller testing environment – which placed system capabilities at 1,100 concurrent users – with a larger test where “officials estimated that up to 58,000 virtual users could get through the full…production website application, which is almost precisely the figure cited by Mr. Park.”
“It is evident that the testing conducted for Healthcare.gov was inadequate, particularly considering the very high demand experienced in the first days after the website became operational, and I believe Congress can play a key role in conducting responsible oversight to ensure that millions of Americans obtain the health insurance coverage they deserve,” Cummings said. “But it is reckless and highly irresponsible to make unsubstantiated public allegations by taking information out of context, especially when the committee has information in its possession that directly contradicts these unfounded allegations.”
At today’s press briefing, Carney called the subpoena of Park “an unfortunate and unnecessary step.”
“The issue for us is not a question of if he will testify but when,” he added. “We had hoped the committee would work with us to find an alternative date to give Mr. Park time to focus on his immediate task at hand, which is getting the website fixed. This is a goal that is ostensibly shared by the very House Republicans now demanding his appearance on Wednesday, an appearance that would take him away from his work on the website.”
The House Oversight & Government Reform Committee hearing is just one of several planned for this week on the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans hope to use the sessions to cast further doubt on the wisdom of the healthcare reform law that they have sought to repeal more than 40 times. Five hearings have been conducted since the Oct. 1 outset.
In addition to Issa’s committee, the House Homeland Security Committee will meet Wednesday to focus on the security of consumer data obtained by healthcare.com. Also:
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing Thursday titled “ObamaCare Implementation Problems: More than Just a Broken Website;” and
- The House Education and the Workforce Committee will hold a session on Thursday titled “The Effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on Schools, Colleges, and Universities.”
“We’re going to try to get to the bottom of why politics went ahead of best practices and good technology, something the American people expect, that didn’t happen in this case,” Issa said. “And it’s the tip of the iceberg that we’re worried about is if they’re willing to put politics into a website, what will they put into your healthcare?”