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US lawmakers step up assault over 'Obamacare' woes

A woman looks at the HealthCare.gov insurance exchange Internet site on October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.

US lawmakers grilled the contractors behind the troubled Obamacare website Thursday as Republicans attacked what they have dubbed "one of the biggest IT disasters in government history."

President Barack Obama's Republican opponents have long opposed his flagship health insurance reform, and have gleefully seized on the failed launch of its online sign-up page.

Executives from firms contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services said the site's debut had been hit by technical complexities and an overwhelming response by consumers.

But they also testified that, while ideally there should have been months of testing before launching such a complex system, HHS waited just two weeks before taking the website live on October 1.

"It would have been better to have more time," Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of contractor CGI Federal, admitted to members of the House of Representatives in a testy hearing.

Andrew Slavitt, group vice president of contractor Optum, said the website's dry run only began in mid-September, adding: "Ideally, integrated testing would have occurred well before that date."

Even as they and others testified that initial technical glitches they encountered have been addressed and improved, lawmakers vented their anger over the deeply embarrassing rollout .

"This is not about blame, it's about accountability," said House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton, who said the problems are symptomatic of broader difficulties with the law.

"The broken promises are many," he said.

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (R) speaks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough following an event about the Affordable Care Act, the new healthcare laws, at the White House in Washington on October 21, 2013
US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (R) speaks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough following an event about the Affordable Care Act, the new healthcare laws, at the White House in Washington on October 21, 2013

Upton said contractors and officials "looked us in the eye and assured us repeatedly that everything was on track -- except that it wasn't."

Fellow Republican Joe Pitts went further, decrying the troubled rollout "dysfunction" as "one of the biggest IT disasters in government history."

Obama is facing criticism for failures stemming from the debut of the site -- Healthcare.gov -- through which millions of Americans are expected to buy insurance.

With the problems under the microscope, the White House moved to clear up what it sees as confusion about the law.

Obamacare requires most Americans to have health insurance from 2014 or face a fine, but the White House said it will give an extra six weeks, until March 31, before a penalty kicks in.

Thursday's hearing, the first of three over the next week arranged by the House of Representatives' Republican leadership, gave a hostile reception to the contractors, in some cases by angry Democrats.

When Slavitt said "many of the critical components developed by these multiple vendors were overwhelmed," he earned a reprimand.

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo scoffed at suggestions that excessive volume would have crashed a $500 million operation.

"That's really kind of a lame excuse," Eshoo, a Democrat representing the California tech hub of Silicon Valley, shot back.

"Amazon and e-Bay don't crash a week before Christmas, and ProFlowers doesn't crash before Valentine's Day."

But when Republican Joe Barton accused officials of violating privacy laws by transferring consumers' private health data through the website, Democrat Frank Pallone came to their defense.

Senior vice president of CGI Federal Cheryl Campbell testifies during a hearing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act before the House Energy and Commerce Committee October 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC
Senior vice president of CGI Federal Cheryl Campbell testifies during a hearing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act before the House Energy and Commerce Committee October 24, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

"You are trying to scare people so they don't apply," he boomed, decrying the hearing as a "monkey court" trying to shame the administration into dismantling the health care law.

Contractors argued the site's complexity -- it links millions of customers to federal and private databases like those of the Social Security Administration and 170 insurance firms -- was a key factor.

A main problem arose at the entryway, where the requirement for consumers to create a secure account caused a "bottleneck" that prevented the vast majority of users from accessing the exchanges.

Slavitt, whose company designed the gateway, said it "doubled the capacity of the registration tool within seven days" and claimed that it is now working well.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whom critics have said should resign over the poor rollout, declined to testify at Thursday's hearing but is expected to appear before the committee next week.

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