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Medicare chief apologizes for 'Obamacare' woes

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar & Stephen Ohlemacher

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 05:24 a.m. HST, Oct 29, 2013

WASHINGTON » Stressing that improvements are happening daily, the senior Obama official closest to the administration's malfunctioning health care website apologized today for problems that have kept Americans from successfully signing up for coverage.

"I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should," Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner said as she began her testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee. It was the most direct mea culpa yet from a top administration official.

The first senior official to publicly answer questions from lawmakers, Tavenner is being grilled not only on what went wrong with HealthCare.gov, but also whether lawmakers can trust promises to have things running efficiently by the end of November.

She firmly refused to provide current enrollment numbers, saying repeatedly they will not be available until mid-November.

Tavenner's appearance follows the testimony last week of outside contractors who said there wasn't enough time to test the complex online enrollment system. It froze up the day it was launched, Oct. 1.

At stake is what the Republicans' partial government shutdown could not achieve: a delay of President Barack Obama's law expanding coverage for uninsured Americans. As a result of widespread sign-up problems, even some Democrats have joined Republicans in calling for a one-year postponement of the law's tax penalties for the remaining uninsured. The insurance industry warns that would saddle the new system with too many high-cost patients.

In prepared testimony, Tavenner acknowledged the initial performance "has not lived up to the expectations of the American people and is not acceptable." But she also seconded administration talking points that despite the website problems the law is living to its promise of quality, affordable health insurance for those who don't have access to workplace coverage.

Less well known than Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Tavenner was closer to the day-to-day work of setting up the enrollment website, which was handled by experts within her agency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, along with outside contractors. Like other administration officials, she previously had assured Congress that everything was on track for a reasonably smooth launch in all 50 states.

"If people can't navigate such a dysfunctional and overly complex system, is it fair for the IRS to impose tax penalties?" said Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. In a concession, the White House has said it will waive penalties for anyone who signs up by March 31, in effect granting a limited grace period.

Tavenner began her career as a nurse and built a successful record as a hospital executive before entering public service. Seen as a businesslike manager, she has enjoyed support from lawmakers across the political spectrum. Indeed, Republicans are calling for Sebelius to resign, not Tavenner. But the Medicare chief's professional reputation is also at stake.

On Monday, a spokeswoman acknowledged Tavenner's central role. The Medicare agency "has said we are responsible for the issues the website is currently facing," communications director Julie Bataille said. As administrator, Tavenner "has been in charge of the overall ... implementation effort."

What Tavenner knew about the potential for problems and whom she told will be key questions from lawmakers. Additionally, some are concerned about the security of the HealthCare.gov site. Others worry about unintended consequences from the feverish, hasty work to repair the site.

Sebelius is likely to face some of the same questions Wednesday when she appears before another powerful House panel, the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Momentum to fix the problems has grown since Obama personally acknowledged the problems last week. He sent in management consultant Jeff Zients to assess the situation. By the end of the week, Zients reported that he had two big lists with dozens of needed fixes, and said he was optimistic they could be completed by Nov. 30.

HHS also announced that an outside company would assume the role of general contractor shepherding the fixes, in effect taking over the coordination job that Tavenner's agency had been doing.

Although the administration has released a blizzard of statistics on the numbers of people visiting the website, opening accounts and having their income verified by the Internal Revenue Service, it has yet to say how many have successfully enrolled for health insurance.

The website was supposed to be the online portal to coverage for people who don't have a health plan on the job. Its target audience is not only uninsured Americans but those who already purchase coverage individually. A companion site for small businesses has also run into problems.

Under the law, middle-class people can qualify for tax credits to make private health insurance more affordable, while low-income people will be steered to Medicaid in states agreeing to expand that safety net program.

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mikethenovice wrote:
When will the Republicans apologize to the American people?
on October 29,2013 | 05:53AM
kailua000 wrote:
when will the Dems apologize to the American people for spending a half billion dollars on this mess and giving the contract to a Canadian company rather than an American firm. How many bids were on the contract? And when will we get an explanaton for giving the contract to Michelles friend and when do we get an explanation of why the author of the bill is Rob Emanuels brother, a buddy of President Obama. This isn't getting your son a job working for The Bus, its giving big contracts to friends, giving them millions of dollars and it not getting done right. We all know this country needs an overhaul on its health care, but this is not working. And what I find most interesting now are the dozens and dozens of Dems calling for a delay in the mandate....but were too afraid to speak up when the republicans were calling for it. I say vote them all out, every single Democrat and every Republican and start fresh..find people who actually want to work for their money and work for the people who elected them
on October 29,2013 | 07:29AM
pcman wrote:
IRT mike on Repubs. What should the Repubs apologize for? Going after al Quida? Executing a global war on terrorism? Taking defensive actions against potential terrorists? Executing Clinton's plan for regime change and democracy in Iraq? Chasing after al Quida into Afghanistan? Integrating intelligence collection and support to the FBI? 5.7 percent unemployment? 6 percent interest on our bank savings? Lower income taxes?
on October 29,2013 | 08:22AM
thepartyfirst wrote:
The Dems had three years or more to prepare for their signiture legislation called Obamacare. They can't even get that right. Millions of tax payer money went into the website that only suppose to collected info/data and the website is a mess and hackers are saying they are going to have a field day hacking the website. But the Dems don't care. Anything that makes the Democratic Party look good is what they will do. All the Democrat voters should demand better. Now thinking back, the Republicans had a point to delay/defund Obamacare.
on October 29,2013 | 08:36PM
serious wrote:
It's not the office of the presidency, it's the occupant. How many times, in his campaign, did he say, "If you are happy with your medical plan you can keep it" ??? Now, it seems that was a deception to get reelected since millions of people will be cancelled. How many times, in his campaign did he badger the companies that outsourced jobs out of the country??? So, who got the $388,000,000 contract? Silicon Valley? NO!!! It went to Canada. The GOP was right, the Obamacare should have been delayed for a year--or, better, cancelled, just like the plans for the "middle class".
on October 29,2013 | 06:02AM
NITRO08 wrote:
The GOP is never right!
on October 29,2013 | 06:08AM
eoe wrote:
Better call the waaahhhhmbulance.
on October 29,2013 | 06:09AM
AhiPoke wrote:
One of the things I've been really impressed by is how the president's associates continue to take the blame for everything while the president continues to claim he has no knowledge of anything. Does this mean that he surrounds himself with incompetent people or is he disengaged from his responsibilities? It use to be that the president would say, "the buck stops here". Now it's, "the buck stops before it reaches me, cuz I know nothing".
on October 29,2013 | 06:44AM
palani wrote:
Has the President found another scapegoat for his incompetent leadership? Perhaps. You are correct, AhiPoke there is no accountability in this most opaque (non-transparent) administration in history. Corruption and cronyism rule. Will we soon see the same President who chose to shut down the government instead of delaying the individual Obamacare mandate reverse course and do exactly that?
on October 29,2013 | 06:54AM
serious wrote:
AhiPoke, the President knows what's going on---he knew all about the Harvard professor being arrested in his own home, he knew all about Trayvon Martin, he knew about the gay professional basketball player--you see, it's the LITTLE things he doesn't know about!!
on October 29,2013 | 08:36AM
loquaciousone wrote:
There is only one thing left for her - SEPPUKU!
on October 29,2013 | 07:21AM
kailua000 wrote:
good for her, someone finally making a public apology. However, the numbers for enrollment wont be available till November? Everytime someone enrolls there is a log. everytime someone registers there is a log...well at least on a half billion dollar website you would think so, I have a $120 a year website and I can tell. The Canadians are smart. They took all this money and are set for life even if they all quit and shut down the company. And the Dems blame the republicans on this. What a joke
on October 29,2013 | 07:22AM
palani wrote:
I've heard the $600 million figure thrown around for the cost of the website, but in Hawaii alone, $205 million was supposedly made available for our local "connector". If true, the grand total must be much higher.
on October 29,2013 | 07:33AM
pcman wrote:
Marilyn Tavenner should be apologizing for Medicare patients losing their Medicare Advantage insurance because the new Obamacare costs, tax increases on premiums and Medicare rules. (Not my words, but SA article) This affects 4000 people in Hawaii. What is the total nationwide? (See the article buried on page B5 of today's SA.)
on October 29,2013 | 08:07AM
pcman wrote:
IRT my above comment. Here's the link to the article. http://www.staradvertiser.com/businesspremium/20131029_unitedhealthcare_4000_losing_Medicare_plan_in_isles.html?id=229651151
on October 29,2013 | 08:31AM
loquaciousone wrote:
Isn't it ironic that if those tea party loonies that hijacked the Republican party had not shut down the government in order to derail the affordable care act, the Republican party would be sitting pretty right now because the ACA is committing hara kiri and making Barry look really really bad.
on October 29,2013 | 07:31AM
loquaciousone wrote:
Isn't it ironic that if the tea party loonies hadn't shut down the government and destroying the Republican party they would be sitting pretty right now? The affordable care act is committing hara kiri and making Barry look really silly right now.
on October 29,2013 | 07:33AM
AhiPoke wrote:
Barry reminds me of Serrgeant Shultz of Hogan's Heroes. Remember the guy who kept saying, "I know nothing". In Barry's case it's probably true. He knows nothing because he's in over his head. The guy was a community organizer who somehow became president. He has no skills only political ideology and the ability to speak. He will eventually be judged as the worse president in my lifetime.
on October 29,2013 | 09:53AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
She firmly refused to provide current enrollment numbers...

Where does she get off refusing to tell citizens the facts about a program for which they paid $600 million?

on October 29,2013 | 07:52AM
Bully wrote:
OBAMA care should have been contracted to the private industry for implementation. Somebody like Yahoo or Google would done a much better job of building the website. Government contractors are politically rewarded based on their political donations to their favorite politicians.
on October 29,2013 | 10:20AM
mitt_grund wrote:
Private contractors were hired in Hawaii, as I believe was done at the national level. The Hawaii Health Connector is supposedly a private non-profit quasi-governmental agency, run by independent contractors. ,p> I'm just wondering if there is a fifth column at work here. I know of at least one information specialist in a local consultant firm who has strong, personal, anti-Obama sentiments. Would that not tend to influence their work on behalf of the ACA? If this were true of the entire staffs of some of these contractors, wouldn't it be a neat trick to take the government's money and scr*w them to boot?

Of course, since oversight is lacking from career bureaucrats, due to lack of knowledge about IT and website construction, such a fifth column would probably be successful. If they were really into ripping off the government and the people, they could also solicit kickbacks or secret funds from the Koch brothers. Wow, that would be the ultimate in double-dipping!

on October 29,2013 | 02:29PM
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