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Obamacare official tells Congress website glitches 'not acceptable'

Susan Cornwell
Tuesday, 29 Oct 2013 | 10:00 AM ET

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - American consumers' initial experience on the Obamacare website Healthcare.gov has been inadequate and unacceptable, a key administration official overseeing the troubled launch told a congressional panel on Tuesday.

Marilyn Tavenner, director of the agency in charge of setting up the online insurance exchanges, said the administration was determined to repair the glitches, but experts were still diagnosing the problems and have much work ahead.

"The initial consumer experience of Healthcare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people and is not acceptable," Tavenner, a former nurse who heads the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in prepared testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee.

"We are committed to fixing these problems as soon as possible," she said.

It has been four weeks since the website at the center of President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law was switched on, but it has been plagued by error messages, delays and bugs, which information technology experts from both the government and private contractors have been scrambling to fix.

On Sunday, a data center outage prevented Americans from enrolling in the subsidized health insurance provided for under Obama's Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. The site was back up on Monday.

Republicans have seized on the troubled website to further attack Obamacare and question whether administration officials hid problems before the launch. They are expected to press Tavenner on testimony she gave in August, when she said work was on track to roll out a tested website that would make it easy for Americans to enroll for insurance.

Tavenner said in her testimony for Tuesday that an "initial wave of interest stressed the account service, resulting in many consumers experiencing difficulty signing up, while those who were able to sign up sometimes had problems logging in."

She also placed some blame on the contractors helping to build and maintain the website, saying a subset of them "have not met expectations." She did not name the contractors.

A "new infusion of talent" has been brought in and experts are working aggressively to diagnose the parts that are still experiencing problems, Tavenner said. They are continuing to add capacity, and more people are creating accounts, she said.

"We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done," she said.

Tavenner's testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee marks the second congressional hearing to examine the problems with the program's rollout. Last week, contractors who worked on the site told a different panel that the administration launched it after only a minimum of system-wide testing.

Tavenner, 62, was confirmed for her job by the Senate in May. She had been optimistic about the rollout when questioned by lawmakers about it in April and again in August.

She is appearing before Congress one day before her boss, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, testifies to Congress on the same subject.

With Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients saying Healthcare.gov should be fixed by the end of November, experts say the administration could lose the interest of healthy younger adults aged 18-35 for whom the website was seen as a major avenue for enrollment.

On Monday, the White House issued a report promoting the program for young people. Based partly on Census data, it said 46 percent of young adults who live alone in 34 states could get health coverage for $50 a month or less under Obamacare.

Republicans in Congress have introduced a flurry of legislation they say is aimed at protecting the public from the problem-plagued rollout.

Senators Marco Rubio and Jerry Moran have a bill to delay - until six months after the troubled Healthcare.gov is fully functioning - the mandate requiring most Americans to have health insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty.

Fred Upton, the Republican chair of the House, Energy and Commerce Committee, has also produced a bill allowing insurers to maintain existing health plans in 2014 outside the new online health insurance exchanges - even if they do not meet the benefit standards of Obamacare.