Some Democrats have attempted to downplay the significant, widespread problems with Obamacare's federally run insurance exchanges by noting that President Obama warned that "glitches and bumps" were inevitable. But the federal exchange system that covers 36 states has been plagued by problems more severe than glitches and bumps. As Daniel Mendelson, the head of influential health consultancy Avalere Health, told The New York Times, "the federal exchange has, for all practical purposes, been impenetrable. Systems problems are preventing any sort of meaningful engagement."
That's not what the administration told people to expect. Despite numerous warnings about technical difficulties associated with the implementation process and questions about the administration's preparedness, the official line throughout the year—repeated at multiple Hill hearings—was that, for the most part, the executive branch had everything under control. The exchanges would be ready to launch on time, and the system would be basically functional.
A letter released yesterday evening by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tn.) and Darrell Issa (R-Ca.), the top Republicans on the Senate health committee and and the House oversight committee, does a nice job of documenting the administration's reassurances:
Two top HHS officials, Marilyn Tavenner, the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and Gary Cohen, the Director for the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, provided testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform within the past few months suggesting that HHS would be ready for implementation on October 1, 2013. On July 17, 2013, Ms. Tavenner testified that she was "feeling pretty comfortable about the ability [of CMS] to be ready on October 1st." She further stated that "I want to assure you that [on] October 1, 2013, the health insurance marketplace will be open for business. Consumers will be able to log onto healthcare.gov, fill out an application and find out what coverage and benefits they qualify for." At a hearing on May 21, 2013, Mr. Cohen testified "I think we are very much on schedule; we are moving forward. We are going to be ready October 1st for open enrollment to begin." Mr. Cohen also testified that there would not be "any problems with [the] massive amount of data sharing."
Now, of course, we know that the site has serious enough problems that the administration is reportedly considering replacing a major chunk of the code over the weekend.
So what happened? Did federal officials really not know about the extent of the problems? Or were they misleading the public and legislators about the readiness of the system?
The Alexander/Issa letter asks Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for answers about the administration's dodgy assurances and a variety of other exchange-related issues. Sebelius doesn't seem to be very good at fielding questions about problems with the exchanges, but I'll be curious to see what, if anything, the GOP queries here come up with.