This story has been updated to include comment from Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the oversight committee's ranking member.
The lead congressman investigating HealthCare.gov’s dismal performance during its first two months online ratcheted up the executive-congressional conflict on Wednesday, accusing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of criminal obstruction of his investigation.
The dispute centers around a letter the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sent to a contractor that worked on the online health insurance marketplace, directing it not to turn over correspondence and other documents to congressional investigators and stating CMS would manage any congressional inquiries.
That letter amounted to “criminal obstruction” of a congressional investigation,” according to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
“Obstructing a congressional investigation is a crime,” Issa said in a statement. “The federal obstruction laws reflect the fact that Congress’ right of access to information is constitutionally based and critical to the integrity and effectiveness of our oversight and investigative activities.”
HHS Spokeswoman Joanne Peters responded that the department is attempting to comply with Issa’s investigation while ensuring it doesn’t reveal any private consumer information or technology secrets.
“We have worked to accommodate the committee's oversight interests in a number of ways, including by allowing the committee to review unredacted copies of the requested documents in person,” she said in a statement. “The committee already has copies of the requested documents that have been redacted to protect sensitive security information.”
The department plans to respond directly to Issa later, Peters said.
Those concerns were echoed by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the oversight committee.
“Some of these contractor documents have information that could give hackers a roadmap for destroying the Healthcare.gov website,” Cummings said in a statement. “The question is not whether the committee should have access to security information about the website -- HHS has offered to provide full access to any committee member or staff.”
Issa issued a subpoena in October to compel Sebelius to turn over documents related to HealthCare.gov’s troubled launch.
His charges come on the same day Sebelius asked her department’s inspector general to launch his own investigation into HealthCare.gov’s failures. She also asked CMS, which led the Obamacare implementation, to appoint a chief risk officer to investigate why risks weren’t identified during the building of HealthCare.gov and how the agency can avoid such failures in the future.
Issa’s committee has uncovered evidence of significant doubts among contractors that HealthCare.gov would be successful upon launch. He has also charged government officials with forcing last minute changes to the site for political reasons that may have contributed to its troubles after launch.
The oversight committee’s Democratic leaders did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Issa’s charges.
HealthCare.gov has been operating generally well since Nov. 30 following a “tech surge” by the government and contractors that included 400 bug fixes, increased server capacity and a new management structure.
About 137,000 people enrolled in new health insurance plans through the marketplace during its first two months online. An additional 227,000 people enrolled through state-run online marketplaces.
The government hopes to enroll 7 million people in new insurance plans by the end of March. Some experts worry the slow start to enrollment may deter young and healthy people from enrolling in plans through the site, leading to unsustainably high premiums for people who do purchase the plans.