White House Accused of Letting Politics Influence HealthCare.gov Design

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Democrats say GOP is playing politics now instead of helping people get insured.

Congressional overseers made their first move to apportion blame on Monday for the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov, the government’s online health insurance marketplace, while the White House turned to social media to drum up public support for the ailing and embattled website.

The insurance marketplaces are a major component of President Obama’s landmark health care reform law and software glitches that frustrated insurance-seekers during HealthCare.gov’s first three weeks online have become yet another battlefield over Obamacare’s basic viability.

In a letter to the White House’s top technology officials, Republican leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee charged that administration officials directed contractors to fundamentally change the HealthCare.gov interface just one month before launch to conceal insurance plan price comparisons from people who had not already registered with the site.

This change was aimed at ensuring enrollees could factor in any tax subsidies when evaluating plan prices, according to media reports, but also served to shield Americans who weren’t seeking insurance through the exchanges from “sticker shock,” according to the letter from Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and other members to federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel and Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

Park and former budget director Jeffrey Zients are part of a team of experts the government recently brought in to reboot HealthCare.gov. Glitches in registration and sign-in functions have kept the vast majority of insurance seekers from completing enrollment in an insurance plan through the site so far.

The letter instructs Park and VanRoekel to be prepared to testify about HealthCare.gov’s troubles before the oversight committee by Oct. 28 and to turn over any documents related to White House oversight of the system.

The letter also cites committee staff interviews with one of HealthCare.gov’s main contractors, CGI Federal, suggesting that the White House pressured the Health and Human Services Department to demand numerous changes to the website, possibly aimed at making insurance plans offered through the exchange appear more appealing to consumers.

These late changes to the website and political pressure violated technology best practices advocated by the White House itself and could have contributed to HealthCare.gov’s poor performance in its early weeks, according to the letter.

“When prudent design and programming decisions are subordinated to politics, it is easy to see why chaos would likely ensue,” the letter states.  

Democratic committee members responded to Issa with a letter on Tuesday, saying their Republican counterparts had mischaracterized staff meetings with CGI and that CGI officials stated they’d seen no evidence of undue White House influence on HealthCare.gov’s design.

The Democrats’ letter accused Republican members of cherry picking statements from the contractor to gain political points and compares the investigation to other controversial Oversight-led investigations of alleged government wrongdoing including the Sept. 11 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the failed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program to sell and track guns across the Mexican border known as Operation Fast and Furious.  

“Rather than attempting to politicize this issue by making unsubstantiated allegations, we urge you to work with us to ensure that the Affordable Care Act is implemented effectively and efficiently so millions of Americans can receive the affordable health insurance coverage to which they are entitled,” the Democrats' letter states.

The White House, meanwhile, launched a Twitter campaign on Monday night to counteract the negative attention on HealthCare.gov’s troubles with positive stories from previously uninsured people who were able to purchase more affordable insurance through the site or through one of the state insurance exchanges created by Obamacare.

The hash tag #GetCovered encourages tweeters to share stories about purchasing insurance through the exchange and what prevented them from purchasing health insurance before Obamacare.

By Tuesday afternoon, the hash tag was filled by supporters and opponents of the new insurance exchanges. Supporters touted the number of people who have enrolled in coverage, mostly through state exchanges, while one opponent described the government’s misadventures with the site with the phrase “#GetCovered with egg on your face.”

The White House has turned to Twitter during previous political battles, including its #My2K hash tag, which urged Congress to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class but not for the wealthiest Americans. The hash tag referred to a tax hike of roughly $2,200 the average middle class family would face if the tax cuts were not extended. 

A petition posted to the White House site We the People on Sunday urged the government to release the underlying computer code for HealthCare.gov in an open source format so the developer community could assist in finding bugs and offering fixes. The petition had garnered about 1,600 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, far shy of the 100,000 signatures in one month required for an official White House response.