Lawmakers Strike at Obamacare's Early Weaknesses
WASHINGTON -- Key Republican lawmakers in both houses of Congress have launched an investigation into the extent of dysfunction in the Obamacare signup system, striking at the law's early weaknesses in a publicized effort that could end up chipping away at its foundation.
Technical problems since the Oct. 1 launch have prevented many from even getting on the site and fears also loom large about the security of users' information.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, today wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking that she provide information “to help us evaluate the extent of the problems with ObamaCare’s rollout and for us to better determine whether any corrective legislative actions are necessary.”
"We are concerned by recent comments to the media that the system suffers from architectural problems that need design changes. We seek information about these problems as well as whether you still expect individuals to suffer a tax penalty if they do not purchase government-approved health insurance," Alexander and Issa wrote.
The Government Accountability Office reported in June that HHS paid contractors nearly $394 million over three years to set up the exchange at healthcare.gov. Officials assured the Oversight Committee over the past few months that the site would be ready to go as scheduled on Oct. 1.
"From day one, however, healthcare.gov has been plagued by what Administration officials initially referred to as technical glitches," the letter continues. "After six days the Administration finally admitted the glitches were 'design and software problems that have kept customers from applying online for coverage.' News reports detailed stories of people waiting as long as 36 hours to enroll for insurance, many waiting for hours only to give up. As many as 99 of every 100 applications are not able to be processed, and experts are concerned that 'federal officials could face a situation in January in which relatively large numbers of people believe they have coverage starting that month, but whose enrollment applications have not been processed.'"
Problems have included people starting to fill out applications only to be unable to create an account, being given an inaccurate determination of eligibility for subsidies, glitches in being able to communicate with state Medicaid networks, website bottlenecks and malfunctioning tools, and corrupted applications being sent to insurers.
Alexander and Issa requested that Sebelius answer a lengthy list of questions by Oct. 24, including how many people have signed up in relation to how many attempted to do so.
They want a detailed rundown of all technical problems encountered with the site, the contractors involved and the costs that will be incurred as well as what appropriations are being used to fix the exchange, what kind of testing was completed before launch, and more.
"Will individuals who attempted to enroll in insurance through the federal exchange but who ultimately were unsuccessful due to the system’s failures still face a tax penalty if they do not enroll for 2014?" the lawmakers asked. "What about individuals who believe they successfully enrolled but later find out they were ineligible?"
Alexander also released a list of six things to expect when Americans are eventually able to log on: higher premiums, higher deductibles, higher co-pays, unnecessary coverage, fewer choices, and less competition.
“These will be tough and disappointing days for many Americans, as they finally log on to the exchanges and discover that health insurance next year will cost multiple times what it costs them now. This will be a difficult time for other Americans, too, who will find they cannot keep the plans they had, as the president promised, or will pay much more," Alexander said.
“This is why we’ve been working so hard to dismantle and repeal this bill, so that we can begin to pass step-by-step reforms that transform the health care delivery system by putting patients in charge, giving them more choices, and reducing the cost of health care so that more people can afford it.”
Republicans were eager to strike at the first stats coming out of the new healthcare exchange after the Daily Mail reported just 51,000 people completed applications through the new exchange in its first week. That includes 6,200 on the first day of operation.
"House Republicans expected that Obamacare was never ready for primetime, but if the numbers released today are accurate, the law is truly collapsing quicker than anyone would have imagined," said Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.). "At this rate, Obamacare is destined to go bankrupt and will have disastrous effects on the American economy, the health care industry, and millions of Americans and their families."
"Furthermore, the Obama Administration has claimed over and over again that they did not have these enrollment numbers, which would mean that they have willfully misled Congress and the American people," Ellmers added. "For months, HHS, IRS, CMS and all other elements of the federal bureaucracy have promised in hearings, interviews and testimony that they were certain that the massive program would be ready on Oct. 1. Yet here we are, witnessing failure each and every day since it was launched. This law was never ready for primetime and never will be."
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted that there are “there are over 5,000 websites generating more traffic than healthcare.gov."
“So, how many people were able to successfully enroll in the health care exchanges on the first day?" Barrasso said. “We have no idea. The administration doesn’t want to talk about it. First they said they were ‘thrilled’ that so many people were checking out the website."
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on Sunday that 4.7 million people had visited the site.
“Well, if they’re willing to tell us how many people had visited the website, why won’t they tell us how many people actually got coverage?" Barrasso continued. “The administration won’t provide any data to back up its claims until, they say, at least November. You’ve got to remember California claimed five million people visited the website for its own state exchange on the first day. It later had to back up and say, nope, we’re sorry, that wasn’t true. It turns out it only had about 645,000 visitors. Less than a million—not the five million that they claimed."
Striking at Obamacare from another angle, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) sent a letter to the Office of Personnel Management on Wednesday requesting all correspondence they had with the administration, members of Congress and their staffs related to the final Obamacare exemption status.
“This ‘fix’ was one of many delayed regulations, which leads me to believe that there was much debate between the White House and Congress over OPM’s authority to bend the rules and help Members and congressional staff to ultimately retain their very generous taxpayer funded subsidies,” Vitter wrote. “Self-dealing special treatment to avoid the consequences of a law that Congress itself passed is precisely why the American people do not trust Washington.”
Vitter has been pushing an amendment to require that all members of Congress, the president, vice president, and all political appointees in the administration must purchase their health insurance through the Obamacare exchange without the help of taxpayer-funded subsidies. Congressional staff would be prohibited from receiving any contribution greater than what they would receive if they worked outside of Congress.
Alexander's office has been saving the best comments posted on healthcare.gov from users, including: “What an exercise in complete stupidity. I've spent days trying to just log on. I go from one ‘downstream error’ screen to another ‘oops, we're sorry’ screen.”
The senator noted that even with three years to prepare, the administration thought it could get away with a bug-ridden system because people would want the product so much they just wouldn't mind.
He also circulated an InformationWeek article detailing five "red flag" Obamacare site security warnings: all-access request for other sites, clickjacking threat, cookie theft, fake site, and scam psychology. "Given the high profile of healthcare.gov and other portals, as well as the sensitive information they handle, it wouldn't be surprising if identity thieves, at least, do begin probing healthcare.gov and other sites weaknesses," the article states.
"I've been warning that a train wreck is coming with this law, but the truth is that no train wreck has ever had this many warning signs," Alexander said. "The avalanche of last-minute delays should make every American anxious about the quality of the health care they'll be able to purchase in October and the security of the information they'll have to provide—proving again that this law must be repealed so that we can pass step-by-step reforms that transform the health care delivery system by putting patients in charge, giving them more choices, and reducing the cost of health care so that more people can afford it."