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U.S. health care rollout undergoes first congressional scrutiny

David Morgan and Susan Cornwell
Thursday, 24 Oct 2013 | 9:37 AM ET

WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) - The troubled rollout of President Barack Obama's signature healthcare policy on Thursday undergoes its first full-length public airing in a crowded congressional hearing room, where lawmakers will question technology contractors about the government's crippled Healthcare.gov website.

In proceedings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lawmakers are trying to determine why the online portal for uninsured Americans in 36 states has malfunctioned since its Oct. 1 start, the beginning of a six-month enrollment period that is expected to draw at least 7 million people to sign up for federally subsidized private insurance for 2014.

Republicans who control the panel criticized top administration officials and contractors for assuring lawmakers over the summer that the system would work, only to produce an enrollment characterized by crashes, glitches and system failures.

"This is not about blame - this is about accountability, transparency, and fairness for the American public. The broken promises are many," said Representative Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the committee.

"We still don't know the real picture as the administration appears allergic to transparency and continues to withhold enrollment figures," he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the White House have largely declined to disclose information about the problems plaguing the system, which cost nearly $400 million to build, according to a report by the watchdog Government Accountability Office.

Representative Henry Waxman, the lead Democrat on the panel, said the focus should be on fixing the glitches.

"If we want this law to work, we've got to get it right, we've got to fix it, not as the Republicans are trying to do, nix it and repeal it," he said.

The hearing marks the start of a new chapter in the Republican Party's opposition to the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which has withstood more than three years of political and legal attacks as President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy.

Upton's committee is one of at least three House panels planning to conduct hearings on several areas of reform - from insurance costs to potential security problems - where Republicans hope to find problems that can lead to legislation to dismantle the law or aid their 2014 election goal to winning the Senate.

Some of the 14 U.S. states that have built their own online marketplaces have been able to set aside difficulties and enroll people in insurance. But the federal exchange and its Healthcare.gov website continue to experience problems more than three weeks after launch. The Obama administration has largely blamed unexpected high volumes of nearly 20 million visitors.

The administration has until mid-November to iron out the rollout problems or risk jeopardizing its enrollment goal, according to experts.

CGI Federal, the main contractor for the website, said in prepared testimony for the committee that the initial bottlenecks that paralyzed Healthcare.gov stemmed from another contractor's software tool for creating consumer accounts.

That other contractor, United Health Group unit Quality Software Services Inc (QSSI), said its software was overwhelmed by the unexpectedly high volume of visitors.

Both companies also pointed to the administration, which QSSI blamed for a "late decision" to require visitors to create accounts for problems. Written testimony from CGI described the administration as "the ultimate responsible party" because of its role as systems integrator.

The House oversight focus will switch next week to the administration as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius appears before Upton's panel and her lieutenant, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee.