WASHINGTON -- Republicans plan to seek answers from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the Obama administration's troubled start for its health care website to buy insurance, and are raising concerns about the privacy of information that applicants submit under the new system.
GOP lawmakers said Sunday that the Obama administration will face intense scrutiny this week to be more forthcoming about how many people have actually succeeded in enrolling for coverage in the new insurance markets.
Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner is scheduled to appear during a House hearing on Tuesday, followed Wednesday by Sebelius before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The officials will also be grilled on how such crippling technical problems could have gone undetected prior to the Oct. 1 launch of that website, healthcare.gov.
"The incompetence in building this website is staggering," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., second- ranking Republican on the panel and an opponent of the law.
Democrats said the new system needs more time and it can be fixed to provide millions of people with affordable insurance. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said the system was "working in Kentucky."
But the federal online system experienced another problem on Sunday.
A component of that system that has been working relatively well experienced an outage. The federal data services hub, a conduit for verifying the personal information of people applying for benefits under the law, went down in a failure that was blamed on an outside contractor, Terremark.
"Today, Terremark had a network failure that is impacting a number of their clients, including healthcare.gov," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said. "Secretary Sebelius spoke with the CEO of Verizon this afternoon to discuss the situation and they committed to fixing the problem as soon as possible."
Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, of which Terremark is a part, said: "Our engineers have been working with HHS and other technology companies to identify and address the root cause of the issue. It will fixed as quickly as possible."
Blackburn said she wanted to know much has been spent on the website, how much more it will cost to fix the problems, when everything will be ready and what people should expect to see on the site. Blackburn and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., raised questions about whether the website could guard the privacy of applicants.
"They do not have an overarching, solid cybersecurity plan to prevent the loss of private information," said Rogers, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said when consumers fill out their applications, "they can trust that the information they're providing is protected by stringent security standards and that the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure."
The botched rollout has led to calls on Capitol Hill for a delay of penalties for those remaining uninsured. The Obama administration has said it's willing to extend the grace period until Mar. 31, the end of open enrollment, providing an extra six weeks. The insurance industry says going beyond that risks undermining the new system by giving younger, healthier people a pass.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has urged the Obama administration to postpone the March 31 deadline, said she is concerned applicants would not have a full six months to enroll. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is seeking a yearlong delay to the penalty for noncompliance, said there is a need for a "transition period to work out the things."
The administration was under no legal requirement to launch the website Oct 1. Sebelius, who designated her department's Medicare agency to implement the health care law, had the discretion to set open enrollment dates. Officials could have postponed open enrollment by a month, or they could have phased in access to the website.
But all through last summer and into early fall, the administration insisted it was ready to go live in all 50 states on Oct. 1.
The online insurance markets are supposed to be the portal to coverage for people who do not have access to a health plan through their jobs. The health care law offers middle-class people a choice of private insurance plans, made more affordable through new tax credits. Low-income people will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand that safety-net program.
An HHS memo prepared for Sebelius in September estimated that nearly 500,000 people would enroll for coverage in the marketplaces during October, their first month of operation. The actual number is likely to be only a fraction of that. The administration has said 700,000 people have completed applications.
Blackburn spoke on "Fox News Sunday," Beshear appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rogers was on CNN's "State of the Union," Manchin was interviewed on ABC's "This Week" and Shaheen made her comments on CBS' "Face the Nation."