Obama says Republicans share some blame for health-care law’s failures


President Obama answers questions from Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal Tuesday in Washington. (JASON REED/Reuters)

President Obama on Tuesday sought to redirect some of the political blame for the botched rollout of the federal health insurance exchange to Republicans, characterizing GOP lawmakers as rooting for the law’s failure.

Addressing a gathering of business executives, Obama acknowledged that the health-care rollout “has been rough, to say the least,” and he lamented the government’s archaic information-technology procurement system.

Obama said that fixes to the HealthCare.gov Web portal are underway and that the exchange will function for a majority of people by the end of November. But the president said staunch opposition from congressional Republicans is inhibiting the law’s implementation.

“One of the problems we’ve had is one side of Capitol Hill is invested in failure,” Obama said at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council meeting in Washington. “We obviously are going to have to remarket and rebrand, and that will be challenging in this political environment.”

The president also voiced frustration with the toxic political atmosphere endangering his signature legislative achievement. He said Washington needs to “break through the stubborn cycle of crisis politics and start working together.”

Wonkblog's Sarah Kliff explains three proposals that would make good on President Obama's promise that everyone can keep their health-care plan. (The Washington Post)

“You know, people call me a socialist sometimes,” Obama said. “But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is.”

Obama’s comments came after the administration official who oversaw the technical development of the federal health insurance marketplace testified before Congress that 30 to 40 percent of the overall project has yet to be completed.

Speaking before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said the agency is still working on a number of “back office” aspects of the project, including a system to send payments to insurance companies.

Parts of the project that users see — notably, HealthCare.gov — are 100 percent finished, he said. But he said accounting and payment systems still need to be completed.

Obama, at the business leaders event, acknowledged that he and his administration “underestimated the complexities of building out a Web site that needed to work the way it should,” saying the government’s IT procurement process is “not very efficient.”

“There’s probably no bigger gap between the private sector and the public sector than IT,” Obama said. “What we probably needed to do on the front end was to blow up how we procure for IT, especially on a system this complicated. We did not do that successfully.”

The payment system that Chao said has yet to be finished relates to the government subsidies that many low- and middle-income people will receive to help them buy insurance on the state and federal Web sites. In most cases, subsidies will be paid directly to the insurers. People who get the subsidies will simply pay the discounted premiums.

Also incomplete are a component that ensures that the marketplaces and the insurers have accurate, matching information about enrollments, and a system that makes payments to insurers that attract high-risk patients. These systems must be in place by January, officials have said.

“This is a complex project with a short timeline,” Joanne Peters, a Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “As such, issues were prioritized to meet the October 1 launch date.”

Chao said the work should not directly affect customers’ ability to use HealthCare.gov, the federal Web site for people in 36 states to compare insurance plans and prices and apply for government subsidies to help pay their premiums. Officials have said the Web site should be working smoothly for 80 percent of users by the end of the month.

Chao spoke at a hearing that was supposed to center on the security of people’s private information entered into the site. But much of it focused on just-disclosed documents showing that an independent auditor had warned high-level Obama administration officials last spring that the federal marketplace had significant risks.

The McKinsey and Co. document was first reported Monday by The Washington Post.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama was told in April about a review of HealthCare.gov’s problems, but he declined to specify the details of the briefing.

“Flags were raised throughout the development of the Web site, as would be the case for any IT project of this size and complexity,” Carney said. “Those issues, including the ones from six months before the launch, were in turn taken up by the development team housed at [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services]. But nobody anticipated the size and scope of the problems we experienced once the site was launched, as we’ve discussed repeatedly.”

Two White House aides overseeing health-care policy at the time, Jeanne Lambrew and Mark Childress, were briefed on the report’s findings in detail, according to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which gave the McKinsey document to The Post. Carney would not elaborate beyond that Tuesday, saying that “a variety of officials involved in the effort” learned about it.

Federal officials adopted several of the report’s recommendations, taking steps such as increasing communication with states and funneling more resources to in-person helpers and a telephone call center.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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