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Health Care

House Hearing to Focus on Security in the Obamacare Exchange

Issa gets his first opportunity to publicly interrogate HHS since the tumultuous launch of HealthCare.gov.

Wednesday's hearing with information technology officials involved in HealthCare.gov marks Rep. Darrell Issa's first public meeting with them since he launched an investigation into the Affordable Care Act implementation efforts on Oct. 10.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Clara Ritger
November 12, 2013

Wednesday's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing with Obama's tech gurus is the culmination of a monthlong investigation into what went wrong in the rollout of HealthCare.gov.

One month ago, committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., began issuing a series of requests to the Health and Human Services Department for more information about the implementation of Obamacare.

His first letter, sent to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Oct. 10, called the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate—a $95 or 1-percent-of-income penalty in 2014—unfair to consumers if they were barred from signing up for coverage due to HealthCare.gov's malfunctions. Issa requested enrollment data—which is not yet public, although two reports Monday suggest it could be fewer than 100,000—and detailed information about the depth of technical trouble plaguing the federal exchange site and the testing that was done in advance of the Oct. 1 launch.

 

Some of Issa's questions have since been answered. Sebelius testified to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Oct. 30 that she was aware HealthCare.gov had not been thoroughly tested before launch, but did not anticipate the level of problems the website has encountered. And a Sept. 26 memo signed by Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—the HHS agency responsible for the implementation of the federal exchange—indicated that she was aware of high security risks in the system.

That sign-off should have come from Tony Trenkle, the CMS technology executive in charge of HealthCare.gov's security, who announced his resignation last week. Moreover, Sebelius testified that she was not made aware of Tavenner's memo. And on Nov. 1, Henry Chao, the project manager for the federal health insurance marketplace, told Issa's committee he had not seen an earlier security memo—authored by Trenkle on Sept. 3—that described high security risks. Chao is expected to appear at Wednesday's hearing.

In the weeks since his first letter, Issa has subpoenaed multiple HHS officials, including the secretary herself, and began releasing internal memos—called "War Room Notes"—that chronicle the thought process of the administration as they discovered system glitches and took measures to fix them.

Wednesday's hearing will give Issa the opportunity to answer lingering questions about the site's poor design and how the administration is accomplishing fixes—such as the faulty registration data sent to insurance companies.

But the last time the Oversight Committee met about Obamacare, the hearing focused on old grievances. Witness Sarah Hall Ingram, former head of the Internal Revenue Service division for tax-exempt organizations, watched as the Republicans and Democrats bantered about the singling out of organizations based on ideology. When they finally did turn to her, she was asked whether she was a witch.

Issa has also brought on a wave of criticism for requiring the presence of Todd Park, the White House's chief technology officer, whom he subpoenaed last week after Park said he would testify in December once HealthCare.gov was fixed. Park's supporters created "Let Todd Work," a campaign to keep Park focused on fixing HealthCare.gov. Democrats on the Oversight Committee asked Issa to withdraw his subpoena, but the chairman wrote in his subpoena that Park's appearance is necessary to identify what went wrong and how he will address security vulnerabilities in the site.

Regardless of what the committee uncovers, CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille has said on daily press calls about the website's repairs that the administration has no intention of extending the open-enrollment period or delay the individual mandate.

"By the end of November, the vast majority of users will be able to go smoothly through the process," Bataille said on Nov. 7.

HHS, CMS, and White House officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the website's security Tuesday afternoon.

This article appears in the November 13, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.

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