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Obama turns to trusted aide for 'tech surge' to fix healthcare website

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington October 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin La
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington October 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin La

By David Morgan and John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama turned to a trusted adviser on Tuesday to lead a "tech surge" aimed at repairing the troubled launch of the government website at the heart of his signature healthcare law.

Jeffrey Zients, a former official of the Office of Management and Budget who will become head of the National Economic Council in January, will provide short-term management advice on the project, said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

She said a team of experts and specialists drawn from government and industry, "including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies," also would work to diagnose and fix the problems that have plagued the rollout of Healthcare.gov since October 1 and drawn criticism from Republicans opposed to the law.

The websites, which Obama compared to online shopping sites such as Amazon.com, were meant to be the main vehicle for consumers to check out prices and purchase the health insurance offered under the law.

The HHS said at the weekend it was launching a "tech surge" for the website, but neither the White House nor the health department has provided details about the cause of the problems, precisely what is being done to fix them and who exactly is doing the fixing.

Leaders from the health insurance industry were expected to attend a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans.

It was not clear with whom the executives would meet or what they would discuss.

The Obama administration also scheduled a briefing for Wednesday with Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, some of whom have expressed concern with the program's troubles.

One Democrat, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, called for an extension of the "open enrollment" date for those purchasing insurance beyond the March 31 deadline because of what she called the "incredibly frustrating and disappointing" experience people are having as they try to enroll.

The announcement that Zients would be involved underlines Obama's determination to put the website controversy behind him. Zients has 20 years of business experience as a CEO, management consultant and entrepreneur.

He helped the Obama administration figure out a solution for the "cash for clunkers" car exchange program's website, which crashed repeatedly when it opened early in Obama's first term.

Republicans, long opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act known as "Obamacare," have seized on the information vacuum about the website's problems to start their own investigation in Congress about the role of the White House.

CRITICISM OF DESIGN FEATURE

In a letter to two administration technology officers, Republicans on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee said their investigation already points to significant White House involvement in discussions between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the website contractor, CGI Federal.

CGI officials have also told committee staff the widely criticized design feature requiring visitors to create accounts before shopping for insurance was implemented in late August or early September, barely a month before the October 1 start of open enrollment.

The requirement contributed to a traffic bottleneck that worsened underlying flaws in a system intended to serve millions of Americans without healthcare insurance. The technology problems have frustrated attempts by many to sign on and allowed only a trickle of enrollments.

"We are concerned that the administration required contractors to change course late in the implementation process to conceal Obamacare's effect on increasing health insurance premiums," said the letter authored by panel chairman Darrell Issa and four Republican subcommittee chairmen.

The committee probe, the second House Republican investigation into Obamacare, follows the latest attempt by the party to derail the law during a 16-day government shutdown in October.

Republicans, who view the law as an unwarranted expansion of the federal government, eventually dropped demands for delays or changes to the healthcare law before they would support a federal funding bill and allowed the government to reopen.

Obama said on Monday he was frustrated by the website's problems. A prolonged delay in getting Healthcare.gov to work could jeopardize White House efforts to sign up as many as 7 million people in 2014, the first full year it takes effect.

CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The White House declined to directly address the October 21 letter to U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

"It's not about, you know, who's to blame for glitches in a website. What we need to focus on is fixing those problems, making the information that the American people want available to them in an efficient way. And that's what we're doing," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Under Issa's leadership, the House oversight committee has investigated the Obama administration on several issues since Republicans took control of the chamber in the 2010 elections.

Last year, Issa accused Obama or his aides of obstructing an investigation into the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-running probe on the Arizona border with Mexico. He also spearheaded the House investigation of a 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and another into the Internal Revenue Service's handling of conservative non-profit groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Issa's committee is asking VanRoekel and Park to provide all documents and communications that describe the federal system's architecture and design, CMS' role as system integrator, problems relayed to the White House and the decision to require account creation as a prerequisite to seeing insurance plans.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has started its own investigation and is scheduled to question Sebelius and several contractors at separate hearings within the next eight days.

Polls show that a narrow majority of Americans oppose the healthcare law, and the flap over the launch of the insurance exchanges has done little to change public opinion.

A Reuters/Ipsos online poll on Tuesday showed 54 percent of Americans opposed the law and 46 percent favored it. A poll from a month ago found similar percentages divided over the law.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Susan Heavey; Editing by Fred Barbash, Grant McCool and Christopher Wilson)

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