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Health Agency Chief Apologizes for Federal Website Woes

TUESDAY, Oct. 29 (HealthDay News) -- The head of the federal agency responsible for HealthCare.gov issued a public apology Tuesday for problems that have plagued the health insurance website since its Oct. 1 launch.

"I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should," Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told members of the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee at a hearing on the Affordable Care Act.

Tavenner told the committee that the website problems were being fixed.

"We are seeing improvements each week, and as we've said publicly, by the end of November, the experience on the site will be smooth for the vast majority of users," she said.

Last week, the Obama administration announced that a "punch list" of website fixes have been identified and were being implemented to eliminate the bugs in the system and improve the consumer shopping experience.

Tavenner's apology comes one day before the Obama administration's top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Sebelius is expected to face tough questioning from committee members about the troubled rollout of the federal marketplace, a key component of the historic and controversial Affordable Care Act that is intended to bring health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

The law requires most Americans to have health insurance or pay tax penalties. But in light of the HealthCare.gov website foul-up, many Republicans and some Democrats are seeking a one-year delay of the penalties.

Tavenner admitted that the website's "initial experience has not lived up to our expectations or the expectations of the American people, and it is not acceptable."

"We are committed to improving the performance and have already made progress," she said, citing efforts to debug the site, add capacity and improve the consumer shopping experience.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the committee, repeatedly asked Tavenner for the number of people who have actually enrolled in health plans through the federal and state marketplaces. HealthCare.gov handles insurance registration for 36 states; the remaining 14 states and the District of Columbia operate their own sites.

"We will not have those numbers until mid-November," Tavenner said, noting that the initial number is expected to be small.

Camp expressed concern about preventing a spike in premiums if not enough young adults enroll in coverage. Tavenner said health-plan rates for 2014 are "very competitive."

The successful enrollment of younger, healthier adults is considered vital to the success of the Affordable Care Act -- sometimes called Obamacare -- because their premiums are expected to help offset the cost of care required by older, sicker Americans.

During the question-and-answer period, Democrats on the panel urged their colleagues -- Democrats and Republicans -- to be patient and work together.

"We can't get caught up in the glitches and technical difficulties and lose our perspective," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).

But Republicans pressed Tavenner for assurances that the website would be ready in plenty of time for people to enroll for coverage, especially those whose health insurance policies have been cancelled because their health plans don't meet new criteria under the Affordable Care Act.

Dec. 15 is the deadline for enrolling for coverage that takes effect Jan. 1.

"Can you guarantee no American will experience a gap in their health care?" Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) asked the Medicare and Medicaid chief.

Those individuals can transfer to new coverage through their insurer or go on the federal exchange, Tavenner explained. Anyone facing a gap in coverage in January "can go to the call center today and we can help them," she said.

During a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said, "We are confident that consumers will be able to enroll in coverage by December 15th for coverage in January."

More information

To learn how to apply for health-plan coverage, visit HealthCare.gov.

SOURCE: Oct. 29, 2013, House Ways and Means Committee hearing with Marilyn Tavenner, administrator, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Oct. 29, 2013, news conference with Julie Bataille, spokeswoman, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services