Obama's grasp of flaws in health care website debated

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, who has portrayed himself as surprised by technical problems with the government’s new health care website, was briefed earlier this year on a consultant’s report that warned of possible widespread site failures, White House officials said Tuesday.

There have been weeks of questions about whether Obama understood the depth of the site’s problems and let it open anyway or simply “did not have enough awareness” of them, as the president said at a Thursday news conference.

While the government reports it is improving the portal’s performance every day, security experts told a Republican- sponsored congressional hearing Tuesday that it still is not sufficiently secure to be used confidently by consumers.

Even as the administration fended off criticism of the so-called “front end” of the system, officials revealed Tuesday that they had not completed development of the “back end,” the financial management component needed to finalize federal subsidies for consumers who buy health plans.

A spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the lead agency for the website, said it would not be completed until mid-January.

That would be weeks after the first enrollees are scheduled to start receiving benefits under the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010 as Obama’s signature domestic policy.

The law, commonly called “Obamacare,” mandated that Americans have health insurance and created new online marketplaces to buy and sell policies.

Bits and pieces have leaked out over the past few weeks about flaws in the site’s development process.

Monday night, Republican lawmakers who oppose the law released a report and recommendations prepared by McKinsey &Co at the government’s request in March.

It cited a rushed process that left insufficient time for testing and a focus by officials on getting people enrolled versus making the system work right.

The consequence could be system failures that could make enrollment slow or at times impossible for consumers, which is what happened.

Questioned about the McKinsey study, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president had been briefed on it in the spring.

But, he said, the president’s familiarity with the report and recommendations did not contradict previous statements that described Obama as surprised by the scope of flaws in HealthCare.gov.

Obama was told the problems identified by McKinsey were being addressed, Carney said. And Obama had never claimed to be unaware of “red flags” about the site, only of their seriousness.

But since the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, the question has persisted whether the president has been “less than competent or less than candid,” said John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

“This tips the scales in favor of less than candid,” Pitney said.

Release of the report by the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was part of a broad effort by Republicans to discredit the health care program and to portray the Obama administration as incompetent in implementing the health care law.


Democrats are joining the chorus of criticism.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a senior Democrat and ally of Obama, called for a White House shakeup over the handling of the rollout.

The botched rollout has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.

Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1.

Opposition to the health care law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.

In the same poll, Obama’s approval rating dipped to a low of 37 percent.