WASHINGTON – A top administration official Wednesday stopped short of guaranteeing that technical issues with the new healthcare website would be largely resolved by the president's Nov. 30 deadline, heightening Democrats' concerns about the political fallout of ongoing problems with the implementation of the new law.
Asked whether the government's HealthCare.gov site would be working properly by the end of the month as expected, Chief Technology Officer Todd Park sounded less confident than the recent assurances coming from the White House.
"The team is working incredibly hard to meet that goal," Park said when asked by lawmakers if the online site would be "fully" working by Nov. 30.
The site, launched last month to help Americans shop for new health plans, has been plagued by technical glitches that have prevented enrollments and frustrated millions of applicants.
As recently as last week, Obama said in an interview that he was confident the website would be performing better by Nov. 30, dismissing calls to extend the enrollment period.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that the administration's view has not changed.
"It remains the case that we believe the site will be working smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of the month," Carney said. "And we believe we're on track. We make assessments all the time. Today we are confident that we are on track to achieve that."
Park told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that performance of the website continues to improve, and more Americans are now creating accounts and applying for new plans.
"We have much work still to do, but are making progress at a growing rate," he said.
Park said initial problems in accessing HealthCare.gov were the result of high volume, but added that "functionality bugs" – most of which have been fixed -- also hurt the system.
Park said the response time of the website has improved from eight seconds to now less than one. The website is capable of handling 17,000 registrations per hour, which should improve the rate of enrollments.
"Some days are better than others, but if you look at the trend line week over week, things are getting better," Park said.
The Oversight committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), has in recent weeks released a series of documents revealing how officials were grappling with technical issues with the website, and the slow pace of enrollment.
Just this week, Issa's office released portions of an interview with an official at the agency charged with overseeing the implementation, who was portrayed as being unaware of flaws in the security of the website.
That revelation was the source of a number of contentious exchanges between not only Democrats and Republicans, but between the official involved, Henry Chao of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"When I detect that there [are] distortions … I am going to be defensive because that is not the truth," said Chao, who also claimed during the hearing that there were "some rearrangement of the words that I used" in previous testimony to committee staff.
Though Democrats on the committee seized on what they viewed as Issa's politicization of the issue, other lawmakers are signing on to various legislative attempts to remedy other problems with the law.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have signed on to co-sponsor a bill from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that would allow individuals who face the cancellation of their current plans to keep them. Feinstein's support is particularly notable given that she, unlike Merkley and Landrieu, does not face reelection in 2014.
Meanwhile White House officials met with House Democrats this morning ahead of a vote Friday on legislation by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) that would go further than Landrieu's measure by allowing insurers to continue offering plans that fail to meet new standards set by the Affordable Care Act. A number of Democrats had already expressed support for the measure, despite leadership efforts to lobby against it.
"We have only begun to see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the broken promises surrounding Obamacare," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters. "We'll see how many Democrats will put their constituents over politics."