Like Oedipus seeking to investigate those who brought a curse upon Thebes, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has asked her department's inspector general to look into the problems that have plagued the rollout of the federal healthcare.gov website.
The decision is a classic Washington self-protection maneuver. With calls mounting for President Obama to fire Sebelius over the botched rollout of his health care law, the move is an attempt to keep critics at bay by deflecting questions with a boilerplate statement that she is awaiting the results of an internal review.
But there's one thing about the implementation of Obamacare that Americans don't need an investigation to learn - HHS has had an abysmal record on transparency.
In the months leading up to the launch of Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, while states implementing their own exchanges held regular public meetings, the federal website serving residents of 36 states remained largely a black box. Despite mounting signs that the federal exchange wouldn’t be ready, HHS officials from Sebelius on down insisted that it was on track to fully function on Oct. 1.
Over the past two and a half months, as troubles have accumulated for the health care program, HHS has stonewalled reporters at every turn as they seek to find out what’s really going on.
As reports surfaced in October that the files being sent from the federal website to insurers containing information about those choosing health care plans were plagued with errors, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (a division of HHS) at first insisted that the problems were “isolated.” Then, a day later, after insurance industry officials disputed this notion, CMS claimed fixing the errors was actually their top priority.
On Dec. 1, when CMS announced a vastly improved website, officials said their focus had actually been on fixing problems on the consumer-facing portion of the website, not addressing the back-end errors reported by insurers.
But the persistent errors with the files, known as 834 forms, actually have major ramifications for consumers. Until they’re fixed, insurers can’t smoothly process enrollments and accept payments, meaning individuals may think they’re insured on Jan. 1 and find out otherwise.
In response to repeated questions about the error rate of these forms, CMS at first said that its tech team had fixed a problem that had caused 80 percent of the errors – a claim swiftly rejected by the insurance industry. Finally, on Dec. 6, CMS announced that the error rate on these forms had been 25 percent in October and November, and though they have decreased, they were still affecting one in 10 transactions in the first week of December.
Which leads to the question of how many individuals have enrolled in Obamacare and who they are.
It took six weeks after the Oct. 1 rollout of the exchanges for HHS to release any enrollment data, and even in the second release of data on Dec.11, the department didn’t issue actual enrollment figures.
Instead, HHS has announced how many individuals selected plans rather than the number who have paid their first month’s premiums, which is how insurers traditionally define the effective date of coverage.
Additionally, unlike several states such as Connecticut, Kentucky, Washington, Maryland and California, HHS has not offered a demographic breakdown of who has picked a plan. This despite the fact that a key measure of the success of Obamacare is the program's ability to attract a critical mass of young and healthy individuals into the insurance pool to offset the cost of covering older and sicker Americans.
On Dec. 11., Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Sebelius in which he disclosed that a contractor on Obamacare was explicitly warned in its contract with the federal government not to answer requests for information from congressional investigators.
So on the bright side, at least reporters know they aren’t alone in getting stonewalled by the Obama administration.