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5 things we didn't learn from Obamacare 'operational update'

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Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein,Barack Obama,Obamacare,Health and Human Services,OMB,John Boehner,Health Care,Kathleen Sebelius

In an effort to quell criticism of the lack of transparency surrounding the troubled rollout of President Obama’s health care program, the Department of Health and Human Services promised to provide regular “operational updates” to the press.

But the first such update, a conference call held on Thursday afternoon, didn’t provide Americans with much insight into the events leading up to the Oct. 1 rollout of Obamacare — or a real sense of what’s now being done to fix an array of technological problems.

So instead of trying to report on what we learned from the roughly 30-minute call, I thought it was important to emphasize the important questions that weren’t sufficiently answered by Julie Bataille, communications director for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

1) How many people have successfully enrolled in Obamacare through the federal website, Healthcare.gov?

“Nearly 700,000 applications for coverage have been submitted across the nation,” Bataille said.

But this doesn’t really tell us much because it includes not only residents of 36 states served by the federal exchange, but the 14 states plus the District of Columbia that have set up their own exchanges (such as mega-states New York and California). The state-based websites have functioned much better, so the actual number of people who applied through Healthcare.gov is likely to be well below 700,000.

Additionally, applications aren’t the same as enrollments. As Bataille said later on the call, an applicant is “someone who has gotten through the whole application process and gotten their eligibility determination.” That doesn’t mean they’ve picked a plan, let alone paid the first month’s premiums.

2) Who is working on the “tech surge”?

The Obama administration has touted a “tech surge” of great minds brought in to fix the problems confronting the system, but other than former Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget Jeff Zients, the names of the individuals and companies involved have remained a mystery. The call didn’t change that.

“We’re strengthening and reinforcing our team with the country’s leading innovators and problem solvers,” Bataille said.

Later in the call, a reporter tried to pin her down with more details.

“We are excited to be able to be in the middle of this tech surge, and certainly we told you that folks like Jeff Zients are now on board to be able to strengthen and reinforce the team we have in place working on this,” she said.

She added, “In terms of some of the other folks that are involved, I think it’s important to realize these are experts and specialists that have particular areas of niche expertise that they will bring to the team.”

Such brilliant experts and specialists and innovators — whose identities evidently have to be as closely guarded as those of CIA field agents.

3) Why did they set up the system so that individuals had to go through an arduous sign-up process before being able to browse plans?

Bataille said they wanted consumers to go through the entire eligibility determination process first. In other words, she essentially restated the question.

“We made a business decision to prioritize resources so that functionality would be live and available to consumers on Oct. 1,” Bataille explained.

Well, that clears that up.

4) Was HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius aware of the tech problems before the site launched?

The first time this was asked, Bataille answered a different part of the reporter’s question. When pressed further on Seblelius, call moderator and HHS spokesman Richard Olague stepped in and said, “Next question, please.”

When asked about Sebelius one more time, Bataille said, “I don’t think any of us were able to fully predict the consumer demand that we would have seen on Oct. 1.” Thus, she dodged the question by restating an already-discredited excuse that high traffic was to blame for the tech problems.

5) How will HHS find a legal way to delay the deadline to avoid the individual mandate penalty from Feb. 15, as it is now, until March 31, the last day of open enrollment?

“I can tell you that this is something that HHS is working on, and we expect to issue something soon,” she said.

Bataille may have replaced House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as the person with the worst job in Washington.

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