Did a Top Obamacare Tech Official Mislead Congress About the Decision Not to Implement Obamacare's Shopping Feature?



Did a top Obamacare tech official lie to Congress about whether or not a key Obamacare website function was delayed for political considerations?

In a congressional hearing earlier this month, Henry Chao, the Deputy IT director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was asked whether there were any political considerations involved in the last-minute decision to delay the "anonymous shopper" function at Obamacare's online insurance portal, Healthcare.gov.

He responded that there were "none whatsoever."

"I look at the facts of whether—if a system is going to be ready," Chao said, "and of course not everything is going to be 100 percent perfect, and there are certain tolerances. But in this case it failed so miserably that we could not consciously use it."

But that's not what happened, according to CNN, which reports that insider documents confirm that, in fact, the feature passed a test of its functionality shortly before the October 1 launch of Healthcare.gov. From CNN's report: 

When the troubled federal health care website came online, the key "Anonymous Shopper" function was nowhere to be found -- even though it passed a key test almost two weeks before HealthCare.gov launched.

That successful test, noted in documents obtained by CNN and confirmed by a source close to the project, contradicts testimony from an Obama administration official overseeing HealthCare.gov, who told lawmakers earlier this month the function was scrapped because it "failed miserably" before the October 1 launch.

Perhaps the CNN story is missing some key information. We don't know, for example, if there was another test that did fail—one that convinced the health site's tech team that the function wasn't worth implementing.

But there's some reason to think that CNN's story is not incomplete, and that Chao, in his response, did not tell the truth. The CNN report backs up, and seems to confirm, an October report in The Wall Street Journal, which said that the federally run insurance portal "was initially going to include an option to browse before registering, but that tool was delayed." The Journal report included an explanation for why the function was removed—an explanation that said nothing about technical failures. "An HHS spokeswoman said the agency wanted to ensure that users were aware of their eligibility for subsidies that could help pay for coverage, before they started seeing the prices of policies."

In other words, officials didn't want people to see the true price of the insurance premiums on offer through the exchanges, so they created a system which only allowed for plan shopping after subsidy eligibility was confirmed. 

That doesn't sound like it was simply a question of system readiness, as Chao claimed before Congress. And if Chao lied about the test results, it's reasonable to wonder whether he also misled about the reasoning for disabling the feature.