By Roberta Rampton and Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, who has portrayed himself as surprised by technical problems with the government's new health care website, was briefed earlier this year on a consultant's report that warned of possible widespread site failures, the White House said on Tuesday.
There have been weeks of questions about whether Obama understood the depth of the site's problems and let it open anyway, or simply "did not have enough awareness" of them, as the president stated at a November 14 news conference.
While the government says it is improving the portal's performance every day, security experts told a Republican sponsored congressional hearing Tuesday that in their opinions, it is still not sufficiently secure to be used confidently by consumers.
Even as the administration fended off criticism of the so-called "front end" of the system, officials revealed Tuesday that they had not completed development of the "back end," the financial management component needed to finalize federal subsidies for consumers who buy health plans.
A spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the lead agency for the website, said it would not be completed until mid-January, weeks after the first enrollees are scheduled to begin receiving benefits under the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010 as Obama's signature domestic policy.
The law, commonly called Obamacare, mandated that Americans have health insurance and created new online marketplaces to buy and sell policies.
Meanwhile, Obama's approval rating dipped to a low of 37 percent in a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Bits and pieces have leaked out over the past few weeks about flaws in the site's development process. Monday night, however, Republican lawmakers who oppose Obamacare released a report and recommendations prepared by McKinsey & Co at the government's request in March 2013.
It cited, among other things, a rushed process that left insufficient time for testing and a focus by officials on getting people enrolled versus making the system work right.
The consequence, it said, could be system failures that could make enrollment slow or at times impossible for consumers, which is exactly what happened.
Questioned about the McKinsey study, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president had been briefed on it in the spring.
But he said the president's familiarity with the report and recommendations did not contradict previous statements from the White House that described Obama as surprised by the scope of flaws in HealthCare.gov.
Obama was told that the problems identified by McKinsey were being addressed, Carney said. And Obama had never claimed to be unaware of "red flags" about the site, only of their seriousness.
But since the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, the question has persisted whether the president has been "less than competent or less than candid," said John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. "This tips the scales in favor of less than candid."
Release of the report by the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was part of a broad effort by Republicans to discredit the health care program and to portray the administration as incompetent in implementing the health care law.
DEMOCRATS JOINING CRITICISM
Democrats are increasingly joining the chorus of criticism. Representative Elijah Cummings, a senior Democrat and ally of Obama, called on Tuesday for a White House shakeup over the handling of the rollout.
The botched rollout has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.
Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from September 27 to October 1.
Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.
(Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Fred Barbash and Grant McCool)