By David Morgan and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. agency responsible for the troubled new government-run healthcare website apologized on Tuesday for the difficulty people are having in obtaining insurance, but blamed the portal's woes on contractors and high traffic.
Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said the website faces "complex technical issues" four weeks after it opened for enrollment.
"We know that consumers are eager to purchase this coverage. And to the millions of Americans who have attempted to use Healthcare.gov to shop and enroll in healthcare coverage, I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should," Tavenner told a congressional hearing.
Tavenner's testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee is the Obama administration's first formal statement to Congress about the challenges facing Healthcare.gov. Tavenner's boss, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, is scheduled to testify before another House oversight panel on Wednesday.
The website is a lynchpin of President Barack Obama's program to provide healthcare coverage to millions of uninsured Americans under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. Republicans have seized on the website's technical glitches as evidence of broader problems with the law and renewed their call for a delay in the federal mandate that most Americans obtain insurance for 2014 or pay a penalty.
At Tuesday's hearing, written testimony submitted by Tavenner, a nurse and former hospital company executive, was at odds with sworn testimony from two contractors who told the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week that CMS bears ultimate responsibility for the website's performance.
"CMS has a track record of successfully overseeing the many contractors our programs depend on to function. Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for Healthcare.gov have not met expectations," Tavenner told the Ways and Means Committee, one of at least three Republican-controlled House panels investigating the problem-plagued debut of Obama's signature domestic policy.
Republicans have long opposed the policy because they consider it an unwarranted expansion of the federal government.
Sebelius, who has faced Republican calls for her resignation, will appear before the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday. That panel on Tuesday posted her testimony, which was nearly identical to Tavenner's.
CONTRACTORS BLAMED CMS
Executives from the main Obamacare contractor CGI Federal and Quality Software Services Inc (QSSI), a unit of health insurer UnitedHealth Group, blamed CMS for a lack of system testing and a decision to prevent online visitors from shopping for insurance without first creating an account on the site. The last-minute change may have contributed to huge bottlenecks as millions of visitors swamped the site.
Tavenner said in her written testimony that "the initial wave of interest stressed the account service, resulting in many consumers experiencing difficulty signing up, while those who were able to sign up sometimes had problems."
QSSI also said it had concerns about performance risks related to the lack of testing and kept the agency informed throughout the project.
Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, led the Republican criticism on Tuesday.
"Frankly, three years should have been enough. And had the administration provided more forthcoming answers and shared, in a transparent manner, the reality of the challenges it was encountering in the implementation process, I suspect many of these glitches could have been avoided," Camp said.
"While a website can eventually be fixed, the widespread problems with Obamacare cannot," he said.
Representatives from Obama's Democratic Party said Republicans were determined to kill the law rather than finding solutions that would enable millions of uninsured Americans in 36 states to sign up for subsidized health coverage. Online marketplaces built by 14 states and the District of Columbia have performed more smoothly.
A "new infusion of talent" has been brought in and experts are working aggressively to diagnose parts of the website that are still experiencing problems, Tavenner said. She said more people are creating accounts.
Tavenner, 62, was confirmed for her job by the U.S. Senate in May. She had been optimistic about the rollout when questioned by lawmakers about it in April and again in August.
Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients said last week that Healthcare.gov should be fixed by the end of November. But experts say that if the administration does not get it fully up and running soon, it risks losing the interest of healthy younger adults aged 18-35 - the group the administration is relying on to keep premiums from soaring.
(Additional reporting By Susan Cornwell and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Grant McCool)