WASHINGTON – A familiar troubleshooter has been enlisted to try to fix the government's health insurance website, administration officials said Tuesday, as political pressure piled up over the centerpiece of President Obama's healthcare law.
Jeffrey Zients, a former acting director at the Office of Management and Budget, will assist the Department of Health and Human Services with "short-term advice, assessments and recommendations," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Zients has served as the chief performance officer at OMB, a job aimed at improving government technology and efficiency.
Zients will lead the "tech surge" to repair healthcare.gov, which has been riddled with debilitating problems since its launch Oct. 1. But the involvement of an experienced manager did little to silence Republican critics or calm Democrats worried about fallout from the botched rollout of the website that is supposed to link uninsured consumers with affordable private insurance plans.
On Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called on the administration to extend open enrollment beyond the March 31 deadline. "Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll," Shaheen wrote in a letter to the president.
The senator also asked for clarification on whether the administration would enforce the fine that individuals who did not have insurance next year would be required to pay. "If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage," she wrote.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats traded charges over an administration briefing on the Affordable Care Act scheduled Wednesday for Democrats.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), called the Democrats-only briefing a "snub." He said Republicans had asked for the same briefing and called on the administration "to honor its promises of transparency."
"Far too much information about Obamacare's rollout is being concealed from the public," Buck said in a statement. "All members – as well as the American people – deserve answers for this debacle."
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelsoi (D-San Francisco), said House Democrats had held such briefings for months.
"While we appreciate House Republicans' newfound interest in the implementation of health reform," he said in a statement, "it is clear they are not interested in anything other than continuing their desperate drive to sabotage this law."
Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the department had conducted numerous briefings on Capitol Hill. "We are happy to hold additional ones as requests come in," she said.
The White House often touts its commitment to transparency and open government, but administration officials have largely dodged questions about whether they are considering extending the deadline. On Tuesday, Carney also avoided answering questions about the cause of the problems, saying that the administration is focusing on identifying issues and fixing them quickly.
"You know, we're not interested in Monday morning quarterbacking," Carney said. "No one in the administration is satisfied by the performance of the website thus far and the consumer experience that it has provided."
In a letter to two top administration technology officials, Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Monday accused the White House of letting political considerations guide decisions about the website and said officials with the lead contractor, CGI, had told committee staff that the White House was closely involved.
Government employees "constantly mentioned the White House when discussing matters with CGI," committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) wrote.
Democrats on the committee defended the White House on Tuesday, saying Issa's letter misstated the comments to committee staff.
"CGI officials stated that they had no knowledge of any White House role in specific decisions relating to the website," wrote Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "CGI officials also stated that they had seen no evidence of political considerations affecting operational decisions about the website."
Carney did not comment on the White House role in building the website. He said the White House would "cooperate with all legitimate congressional oversight," but then suggested he thought Issa's committee was less than legitimate. "We’ll see," he said.
The spokesman did not offer much information on the White House effort to fix the site. Carney declined to say how much money had been spent making repairs and whether the White House believed it had a handle on what changes needed to be made.
He would not discuss reports that the site crashed in key tests just before the rollout and referred questions to the Health and Human Services Department. The Washington Post and other outlets have reported that the administration ignored warnings that the website was not ready to be launched.
A Health and Human Services spokeswoman did not reply to an inquiry about the site's testing.
On a department blog, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote Tuesday that Zients would be joined on the "surge" team by a handful of Presidential Innovation Fellows, a group of technology experts working on projects to improve government efficiency and accessibility.
Sebelius also said the administration had added staff and help from contractors, including CGI. The new resources were added "within the provisions of their existing contract," Sebelius said.
The secretary has faced criticism from Republicans for delaying her testimony before another House committee reviewing the matter.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hear from contractors in a Thursday hearing on "implementation failures." Sebelius declined the invitation to testify, citing a scheduling conflict. She is scheduled to testify on Oct. email@example.com