Obama administration information technology officials were taken to task Wednesday by House Republicans for the disastrous launch of the healthcare.gov website launched Oct. 1 that was to serve as a marketplace for Americans to purchase health insurance as required by the Affordable Care Act.
But the hearing, as has often been the case with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was overshadowed by partisan sniping.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, characterized Republican concern over the website's failings as disingenuous.
"No one in this room, no one in this country actually believes any Republicans want to fix the website," he said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., also accused Republicans of leaking documents in attempts to undermine the Obama administration and set up witnesses for combative testimony.
"I am concerned with a pattern of calling people to make testimony and then cherry-picking their testimony to make a political point," he said.
Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., indignantly refuted the charges.
"No witness here has been cut off. 'Kangaroo courts' is quite an accusation," he said. "This is not a partisan hearing, I will not have it be accused of being a partisan hearing."
But when it came to the meat of the matter, how and why the website failed, there were few revelations. Republicans keyed in on security and functionality issues of the site and tried to make plain that political decisions helped contribute to problems.
"Clearly on Day One the system was overwhelmed by volume," said Todd Park, the U.S. chief technology officer from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "I can say now in addition to volume there are other key issues … and there are aggressive efforts happening [to fix them]. The site is getting better, week over week."
Park, who was described by one House Republican as being "Mr. Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth" for his role in trying to fix the website, said the web teams had managed to expand capacity and apply code fixes that have made things run more smoothly. For example, healthcare.gov page-load times have been reduced from an average of eight seconds to less than one, Park said.
"We're most of the way, we want to get it down further," he said. "People can actually get through the front door and fill out applications."
When Rep. Jimmy Duncan, R-Tenn., asked witnesses how much the website setup and fix would cost overall and when it would be complete, they were at a loss to answer.
"Does anybody have any idea how much this is going to cost us in the end? Nobody knows?" he asked after pausing for a response. "Go to the second question then: How long is this going to take?"
Steve VanRoekel, the chief information officer for the Office of Management and Budget's office of electronic government, said, "It's important to note that Americans are getting insurance today."
"But millions are getting their policies canceled and millions are getting sticker shock from increased premiums," Duncan said. "If [you] couldn't fix it in 3 ½ years, how long is it going to take?"
That's the question that remains to be answered. While the Obama administration has promised the website will be fully functional by Nov. 30, many on the panel remained skeptical given the series of performance issues revealed during the rollout of Obamacare so far.