Top tech officer at health insurance agency resigns

The Chief Information Officer for the agency running the troubled health insurance website has resigned, officials confirmed on Wednesday -- but they wouldn't say whether he was a casualty of the messy rollout.

Tony Trenkle, the CIO for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, "made a decision that he was going to move to the private sector," CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille told reporters.

Members of Congress have been calling for someone to be fired to take responsibility for the embarrassing debut of the centerpiece of health reform -- many even calling for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign. Bataille would not say whether Trenkle had been asked to resign.

Sebelius told Congress earlier on Wednesday that a team of tech whizzes working through nights and weekends to fix the troubled health insurance marketplace website will be hard-pressed to finish repairs as promised by the end of November, and that as a result, not many people will have been able to sign up.

"We are not where we need to be," Sebelius told a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. "It is a pretty aggressive schedule to get to the end of the punch list by the end of November," she said.

"I can tell you our early enrollment numbers will be very low."

She said "a couple of hundred functional fixes" had been identified. 

The site was having trouble again on Wednesday, Bataille said. "The site is performing slowly. We know that some users are having difficulty logging in," she said.

But Sebelius again rejected the idea of shutting down the website to fix it for good, saying the site can be repaired while it's live.

"Delaying the Affordable Care Act wouldn't delay people's cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's," Sebelius said. "We want to save families from going bankrupt," she added. "Delay is not an option."

And, Sebelius said, the administration plans to reach out to people who may have tried to sign onto the site and stopped trying because they were frustrated. "We have a plan to re-invite people to the site," she said.

Later Wednesday, President Barack Obama visited Dallas to meet volunteers helping people to sign up and to sell his administration’s take on the law — which is that, despite problems with the site, people will get better insurance as a result of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

"This is like having a really good product in the store and the registers aren't working and not enough parking spots, and no one can get in the door," Obama told a crowd at Temple Emanuel-El in Dallas.

The healthcare consulting company Avalere Health released an estimate Tuesday that suggested Texas alone could account for 9 percent of all the people signing up for insurance on the online exchange. That makes Texaqs an important target for the administration.

"Given delays in launching the federal website, the administration may focus year-end outreach efforts on large states like Texas. These states have significant numbers of uninsured individuals who can help bolster national enrollment statistics," said Caroline Pearson, vice president at Avalere Health.

And even as hostile Republicans in Congress grilled Sebelius and questioned whether health reform is working, Democrats chalked up a win with Terry McAuliffe's victory in Virginia. McAuliffe says one of his first priorities will be to embrace Obamacare and expand Medicaid in Virginia, one of the Republican-led states that has resisted doing so.

Obama pressed for Texas to do the same, but got a rude retort from the states Republican governor, Rick Perry. "Now he's coming to Texas in a desperate attempt to salvage his ill-conceived and unpopular program from a Titanic fate by preaching expansion of the same Medicaid system he himself admits is broken," Perry said in a statement.

"In Texas, where Medicaid already consumes a quarter of the state budget, we simply need the flexibility to implement fundamental, state-specific reforms to our Medicaid program, instead of a one-size-fits-all Washington mandate, before it bankrupts our state."

It wasn't much friendlier back in Washington.

"It is clear to me you are working as hard as you can to fix," Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the Democrat who chairs the committee, told Sebelius. But while he made it clear the hearing was a friendly one, Baucus expressed disappointment that Sebelius and her deputies did not foresee just how badly the new health insurance marketplace would falter.


Republican senators were ready to roast Sebelius, and they did. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called the website's rollout an "absolute debacle" and noted that he and other senators had asked for details of the site's implementation months before, and had been ignored.

"Two separate reports, one from the General Accountability Office in June and another from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General in August, identified significant challenges months ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline," Hatch said. "Yet there is no indication that the warnings from these two independent, non-partisan watchdogs, were heeded by the government."

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who had a decades-long relationship with Sebelius, repeated calls for her to resign. "I believe to protect the administration, you chose to ignore these warnings and as a result, you put the entire healthcare system, and one-sixth of the U.S. economy, in jeopardy," Roberts told Sebelius, a former Kansas governor.

"You have said Americans should hold you accountable which is why today, Madame Secretary, I repeat my request for you to resign."

Sebelius stayed unrattled under two and a half hours of questioning, deflecting repeated and often heated queries about the White House promise that people who like their insurance policies can keep them

"We know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately, lying to the American people is not," Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, said. "I'd just like to ask you a simple true-or-false question. Is that statement on the White House website true or is it false?"

"I think the statement is that..." Sebelius started to answer. But Cornyn testily interrupted. "Is it true or is it false, Madame Secretary?"

"The vast majority of Americans who are insured are in the employer market or in public plans or in veterans' plans, and the -- those plans have stayed in place and continue to offer benefits," Sebelius said. An estimated 15 percent of Americans don't have health insurance and the exchanges are meant to be a way to get them signed up for either private insurance or for Medicaid.

Sebelius said 11 million people who now buy their own insurance on the private market "will have stronger coverage". She noted that policies on the private market often change every year, and that a third of people with such policies hold them for six months or less, anyway.

Several Democrats came to the rescue. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller railed against what he called the "maniacal Republican attack machine" and said he was proud of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. "I think it's a magnificent work," Rockefeller said.

On Tuesday Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the website, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee that her department would be able to provide numbers of how many people have been able to enroll in health insurance on the exchanges next week.

Tavenner says the site is being fixed and says it can handle 17,000 people a day now. She also said the administration has been planning all along for people to wait until the last minute to sign up —one big batch in December, and another batch in February and March.

Sebelius said the open enrollment period for is far longer than for most insurance policies. For employer-sponsored insurance, open enrollment, when people can change plans or sign up for new plans, is usually only two weeks long. The open enrollment for the first year of lasts six months, from Oct. 1 to March 31.