HHS chief wants more Obamacare transparency

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell.
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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell.

Obamacare's going to start overloading some peoples' Outlook calendar very soon.

Stung by an embarrassing overstating of Obamacare enrollment numbers, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell has ordered her deputies to hold a series of meetings to discuss how to increase transparency around that health-care reform program and the rest of the agency's work.

Burwell's mandate came days after it was revealed the Obama administration had inflated—accidentally or otherwise—the number of total Obamacare sign-ups by nearly 400,000 people in September and then again in early November by including people enrolled in dental plans.

It also comes after HHS' failure as of yet to reveal current open-enrollment data as has been noted by CNBC and other media outlets, even as a number of states have been releasing such data.

Burwell, in an email to senior staff cited the dental plans fiasco at the top of her missive, which was sent out Sunday night. She said that it happened because people with both health insurance plans and separate dental plans "were erroneously counted. Those with stand-alone dental plans should not have been counted."

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"Let me be clear: this mistake was unacceptable," Burwell wrote in the email. "One of our most important obligations to the American people is to report information and data accurately. We are working quickly to understand what happened and to improve our processes in order to prevent similar mistakes from occurring again."

Burwell also wrote that she believes "strongly" that being an effective leader requires "instilling a culture of transparency, ownership and accountability."

"As an initial step, I am asking each of you to schedule a staff meeting to ask for suggestions to strengthen this culture of increased transparency, ownership, and accountability, and for those suggestions to be reported back to me," she wrote. "I will convene a senior leadership meeting to hear and discuss those suggestions."

The email was first reported by Vox.com. CNBC obtained a copy of the email on Monday.

Both Burwell, in November, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, in September, had said total Obamacare enrollment at those times was above 7 million. Without the dental plans that shouldn't have been included in that tally, total enrollment was under 7 million—which is the level the Obama administration last year had set as its enrollment target for 2014 last year.

Vox.com's story noted that an HHS spokesman has said it is still "in the process of finding out precisely what happened" that led to the inflated tally.

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With more than a week since the Nov. 15 beginning of open enrollment for 2015 health plans, HHS has yet to reveal how many new people have applied for or signed up for insurance sold on the federally run Obamacare exchange HealthCare.gov, which serves 37 states. A number of state-run exchanges have already released that and other data, and are updating that information more frequently than monthly.

A CMS spokesman said last Friday that the agency would be releasing enrollment data on a monthly basis, as it did during the last open-enrollment season.