A congressional committee will finally have an Obama administration official to question on the troubled rollout of Healthcare.gov. Previously, Congress has only grilled the government contractors who built the site, but on Tuesday, Marilyn Tavenner, the chief administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, will appear before the House's Ways and Means Committee at 10 a.m.. The committee will be asking Tavenner about the site's problems, as well as whether the site will actually be running on November 30, as promised.
(Update: Turns out Tavenner got pretty lucky. The Republicans and Democrats in the committee were too busy arguing with each other to ask the Medicare Chief too many questions about the website, notes Sophie Novak at our partner site National Journal. Tavenner did, however, manage to defend the president's statement that recent insurance plan cancellations are not the result of the Affordable Care Act. "Half of the people in the individual market prior to 2010 didn't stay on their policies," she said. "They were either kicked off for pre-existing conditions, they saw their premiums go up at least 20 percent a year, and there were no protections for them. And sometimes they were in plans that they thought were fine until they actually needed to hospitalization, and they found out it didn't cover hospitalization or it didn't cover cancer." For those facing higher premiums, Tavenner recommended they shop for new plans.)
A spokeswoman for the Ways and Means Committee said members of Congress would address the same questions as we asked of contractors at the last Obamacare hearing — essentially, why doesn't the site work, and whose fault is it:
We will focus on oversight of why the testing did not occur, why the administration told this committee repeatedly that they were on track when they were not, the uncertainty this is causing for Americans trying to sign up, wondering if their doctor will still take their coverage, seeing cancellations of their current health-care plan.
Tavenner has the unfortunate honor of being the first administration official to appear before Congress to discuss the federal exchange, as The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff points out, after Kathleen Sebelius was unable to attend the Energy and Commerce committee's hearing last week. On top of that, as recently as late September Tavenner said she was confident the site would launch smoothly.
The good news for Tavenner is that she's one of the few major officials involved in the Obamacare launch who enjoys bipartisan support, Politico's Paige Winfield Cunningham reports. All but seven Senate Republicans confirmed her for her current position. Also, she and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor know each other from Richmond, Virginia, where she ran a local hospital and he was involved in politics. Though Tavenner may face some tough questions — her agency was responsible for coordinating all the website contractors — Republicans still want Sebelius' head. "The problems with Obamacare transcend the website or one office within HHS," said Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore. "Tavenner’s recent appointment was encouraging, but this law is unfixable. More concerning is Secretary Sebelius’s mismanagement since Obamacare became law."
According to Politico, which obtained a copy of Tavenner's prepared statement, the Medicare Chief will outline the steps the administration is taking to improve the site, but won't go into how much her department, or the Department for Health and Human Services, knew about the site's issues.