For the first time Tuesday, an Obama administration official offered an unqualified apology for the botched rollout of the Obamacare website.
Twenty-eight days after its launch, the so-called quarterback of the website, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, became the first member of the administration called to account at a Congressional hearing for the program’s failings.
Tavenner directed her remarks to the “millions of Americans” who have had trouble accessing the site.
“I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should,” she said. “This initial experience has not lived up to our expectations or the expectations of the America people and it is not acceptable.”
Tavenner ultimately took responsibility for the site, but her performance Tuesday was hardly a mea culpa.
At various times she insisted “the system is working” – though not as well as she wants.
An incredulous Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican on the Ways and Means Committee asked:
“You thought the system is working? Did you say that? Let me tell you it’s a public relations nightmare. I hope you honestly don’t think the system is working.”
Tavenner offered few revelations Tuesday, batting away questions about whether the White House had ordered her not to release enrollment figures or whether she had informed the White House that the site was not ready to go.
At points, Tavenner sounded as though she were reading from a script written by hostage-takers. She repeated roughly 22 times, in monotone, “We will have those numbers available in mid-November,” as committee member-after-committee member pressed for current enrollment stats.
There was one illuminating moment: Tavenner explained that her agency vastly underestimated the amount of traffic the site would receive. It seems incomprehensible that the government would not have anticipated healthcare advocates, consumers and journalists all over the country logging into the site as soon as it went live.
But instead, officials calculated a volume estimate based on administration’s goal of enrolling 7 million people over six months, she told the committee. They expected not everyone would flock to the site at once.
They also used traffic at Medicare.gov – a site that applies only to those over 65 — as a guideline.
“In the first few hours, it had five times the volume we ever projected,” Tavenner said.
The site had more than 1 million visitors in just hours and 9.4 million in a week.
The volume brought down the site. But that camouflaged bugs in the application, which turned out to be harder to fix than adding new servers.
CMS has started to provide daily updates about its progress toward solving the site’s technical issues. Reporters were told that 17,000 users can now register for an account each hour – the equivalent of five registrations a second — without error. Users must register for an account before determining whether they qualify for financial assistance to buy a plan.
The federal government has relinquished its role acting as the traffic cop for 55 contractors on the website. It hired one of the main contractors, whose primary piece of the website has worked well, to run the job.
Contractors responsible for building the website testified before a different Republican-controlled committee last week. They acknowledged that just a few hundred users in tests prior to the site’s launch brought it down. They also said no complete site testing – known as end-to-end testing – occurred until just weeks before the Oct. 1 start.
Tavenner insisted the site was tested almost from the start of its development.
“We had tested the website and we were comfortable with its performance,” she said. “The volume and the account-creation issues were not expected and took us by surprise.”
“It did not show up in testing,” she added.
Some members of both parties used Tuesday’s hearing to express their frustration and the frustration of constituents.
Pennsylvania Democrat Allyson Schwartz called the roll out “deeply troubling, inexcusable and unacceptable.”
“The flaw is not the website. The flaw is the law itself,” said Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican.
The White House, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Tavenner all told member of Congress that that the site would be ready, Brady said.
“None of that turned out to be true. Now we’re being told everything will be okay soon. Why should the American people believe you now?”
Members of Congress will get another chance to grill the Obama administration. The most-well-known official associated with the law, next to President Barack Obama, will testify next. Sebelius is set to attend a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing Wednesday.