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Senators Seek Answers on Health Marketplace Woes

Medicare chief says HealthCare.gov is secure, site operations are improving

Senators Seek Answers on Health Marketplace Woes

TUESDAY, Nov. 5 (HealthDay News) -- A top Obama administration health official said Tuesday that HealthCare.gov -- the troubled federal website used to sign up for insurance -- is improving, and insisted that private information provided during the online application process is safe and secure.

"I want to assure you that HealthCare.gov can and will be fixed quickly, and we are working literally around the clock to make that happen," Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The hearing was held to discuss the status of the federal health insurance exchange. The exchange, which also serves 36 states, is one of the keys to the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's bid to offer health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

The administration's goal has been to enroll 7 million uninsured Americans by the end of March through the federal and state-run health exchanges.

So far, the administration has declined to provide enrollment figures. A report last week, based on informal memos released by the Republican-chaired House Oversight Committee, indicated that only six people had signed up for coverage on the first day of open enrollment, Oct. 1.

Tuesday's hearing -- the Medicare chief's second appearance on Capitol Hill since the website rollout -- highlighted privacy and security concerns.

Tavenner said the online application for coverage is "protected by stringent security standards, [and] the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure."

A CBS News report indicated that the website did not undergo proper security testing prior to the Oct. 1 launch.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., cited a security breach that he said affected a man in his state whose personal financial information was inadvertently disclosed.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told Tavenner, "I'm sure you'll be able to fix the website." He said he was more concerned about people having individual health insurance policies cancelled by their insurers and the difficulty of replacing that coverage by Jan. 1.

Alexander asked Tavenner whether she would support a bill introduced in the Senate that would allow people to retain the coverage they like, fulfilling Obama's promise that if you like your health plan, you can keep it.

Tavenner said she had not seen the bill.

Tuesday's hearing also highlighted concerns about consumer confidence in the federal health insurance exchange in light of the troubled website rollout and cancellations of individual health policies.

"What I worry about is there's been such a crisis of confidence, people won't enroll," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who supports the health-reform law.

Tavenner said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would be launching a media campaign to restore confidence in the website after stabilizing it by the end of November.

Mikulski also pressed for information on where people can go for in-person help, citing consumer confusion. "I can tell you people really don't know," she said.

Tavenner's Senate appearance came amid growing questions about the viability of the federal website. The website crashed again on Monday, interrupting service for about 90 minutes. The cause of the problem is being investigated, administration officials said.

Website outages also halted traffic twice last week due to a "partial outage" of service by the company that hosts the HealthCare.gov website and the data services hub, according to the administration.

The Washington Post reported that the White House was warned more than two years ago that the administration wasn't prepared for the task of building the insurance exchange website.

Also Tuesday, the Obama administration asked insurance companies to explain to Americans the cancellation letters that some have received. Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, met with the heads of several of the largest health insurers and urged them to "ramp up communication and education efforts" to those who have lost their insurance, The Associated Press reported.

Millions of people have received cancellation notices, infuriating them because Obama repeatedly promised that those who liked their health care could keep it. The White House said many of those who lost their coverage are now eligible for better, cheaper plans available through the new health exchanges, the AP reported.

More information

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

SOURCES: Nov. 5, 2013, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing with Marilyn Tavenner, administrator, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; CBS News; The Washington Post; The Associated Press

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