Obamacare IT chief out; officials hedge on enrollment data
Has the fumbled rollout of the federal Obamacare site finally claimed its first head?
The IT chief for the agency responsible for Obamacare is leaving to take a job in the private sector, five weeks after the much-criticized launch of HealthCare.gov.
Officials repeatedly refused Wednesday to answer whether Tony Trenkle, the chief information officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services, was forced out of the job that he has held for three years because of the tech issues with the Obamacare marketplace.
"Tony made a decision to move to the private sector," CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said during a conference call the second time a reporter asked if Trenkle was asked or pushed to leave. His departure is effective Nov. 15.
Bataille began the call by noting that HealthCare.gov was "performing slowly" Wednesday despite ongoing tech fixes.
Trenkle's boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, has repeatedly rebuffed Republican calls that she resign because of the glitch-plagued launch of HealthCare.gov.
On Wednesday, she again promised a Senate committee that HHS would release enrollment data from HealthCare.gov for the first time next week.
But hours after Sebelius' testimony, Bataille, in response to a question by CNBC.com, appeared to leave open the possibility that the enrollment data would not be released next week if officials continued to have questions about their accuracy.
"We're planning to release the data," she said, but "we want to make sure the information we release is reliable and accurate."
Sebelius had told a House committee last week that she could not release data then because she could not be confident about accuracy.
Since enrollment began Oct. 1, insurers have questioned the accuracy of applications from HealthCare.gov because of software flaws and other problems.
CMS downplayed the seriousness of the issue for weeks, but two weeks ago, after being brought in to oversee the massive effort to fix HealthCare.gov, management guru Jeffrey Zients said it was at the top of his long list of to-do items.
(Read more: The future of Obamacare: Hospitals as insurers)
Officials have said they expect HealthCare.gov's initial enrollment level to be low when is announced, particularly because of the tech problems that have prevented many people from even creating an account before shopping for plans on the site.
Bataille noted Wednesday that when Massachusetts launched its health insurance exchange in 2006, sign-ups the first month were "something like 0.3 percent" of the number of people who ultimately enrolled in coverage.
But, Bataille said, "we believe our enrollments will increase over time."
She also said that HHS believes the fixes being made will enable HealthCare.gov to work smoothly for most visitors by the end of this month, and that "consumers will have ample time to enroll in the six-month enrollment period."
However, Jim Murray, chief operating officer of Humana told investors during a conference call Wednesday that the insurer expects the federal government to extend the sign-up period beyond the current March 31 deadline.
The insurance industry has strongly opposed such an extension, arguing that it will encourage people to wait until they get sick to get coverage, which in turn could throw off insurers' actuarial calculations and lead to premium price increases next year.
Under Obamacare, nearly all Americans must have health insurance by March 31 or pay a tax penalty.
—By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan.