The magician's stock-in-trade is legerdemain: getting the audience to watch one thing while he pulls off another.
Republicans are hoping their laser focus on problems with the healthcare.gov website -- the one set up to enroll millions of Americans in health insurance plans as required by the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare -- will accomplish much the same feat: taking the heat off the ill-conceived decision to shut down parts of the federal government for more than two weeks with a demand the ACA be defunded and its individual mandate delayed.
But that ship already may have sailed given that developers of the website have had three weeks to expand capacity and fix other problems, allowing hundreds of thousands to sign up for coverage.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee puts Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the hot seat this week after laying the groundwork last week by questioning representatives from the four companies that developed the website under instructions from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Thirty-two Republicans already have written the White House demanding President Obama fire Sebelius for the disastrous rollout.
Thursday's hearing heard from Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal, Andrew Slavitt, group executive vice president of Optum/QSSI, Lynn Spellecy, corporate council for Equifax Workforce Solutions, and John Lau, program director of Serco -- all of whom testified their individual parts of the project were working just fine by themselves, maybe not quickly or in a user-friendly manner, but working.
The session was rife with political sniping highlighted by an exchange between Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and another member of the panel:
Pallone: "So once again, here we have my Republican colleagues trying to scare everybody ... "
"Will the gentleman yield?"
"No, I will not yield to this monkey court or whatever ..."
"This is not monkey court."
"Do whatever you want. I am not yielding. I am trying to tell you that [there is a] problem here," Pallone said.
Republicans repeatedly demanded the names of CMS officials who made decisions, asked for last-minute changes and then allowed only two weeks of end-to-end testing before going live.
The ranting likely would have been more effective had it come in the days right after the rollout rather than three weeks later, after numerous fixes had been made.
Campbell bluntly told the panel there is no need to take down the system to finish fixing it.
"The system will continue to improve. From our perspective, as painful as it sounds, I know that the experience has been a difficult experience, the system is working. People are enrolling. But people will be able to enroll at a faster pace. The experience will be improved as they go forward. And people will be able to enroll by the Dec. 15 time frame" to get coverage by Jan. 1, she testified.
There's no need to scrap the entire system, she said adding, "We're seeing improvement day over day." At this point, she said, it's a matter of "fine-tuning" servers and fixing issues as they come up -- just as would be done in any software-related rollout.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who holds a masters in computer programming and "speaks your language," disagreed.
"These are more than glitches," he said. "They can't be fixed."
In his opening statement, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., railed at his Republican colleagues.
"If we want this law to work, we've got to make it right, we've got to fix it; not what the Republicans have been trying to do -- nix it and repeal it," he said.
"When Medicare Part D started up, and I have this chart here, there were all kinds of problems with the -- with the website. It went on for months. These are some of the headlines that appeared in the newspapers about the problems," Pallone said.
"But did the Democrats get up and say, 'Oh, Medicare Part D is terrible. Let's repeal it or defund it?' No. We said, 'Let's work hard to make it better.' And that's what we did. And the glitches disappeared, and the program became a good program."
(We won't even mention the problems Apple, yes Apple, and AT&T had when the first iPhone was introduced and people couldn't get their phones activated.)
During the hearing, Waxman whipped out his iPad during a discussion on how many users it took to crash the site.
"Even here, I just went on my iPad and I was able to access the choices of plans to my constituents in California in the 5, 10 minutes period," he reported.
Thursday's hearing pointed out the health insurance exchanges are working better in states that set up their own systems (New York alone had signed up at least 174,000 people, Kentucky, 18,370 and Washington, D.C., 35,000, while Oregon has reduced its uninsured tally by 10 percent) than in states that either partnered with the federal government or relied solely on healthcare.gov -- the latter category involving states headed by Republicans. Some 3,000 to 4,000 people have been signed up the old-fashioned way through call centers and paper applications, testimony indicated.
"We're signing up people at roughly 1,000 a day. It's a great rate and a great success so far," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, told CNN, adding critics of the law are not paying attention to facts.
"This system is going to work. The only thing that really isn't working right now on the federal level is the website. I'll guarantee you that whether it's a week from now, a month from now, two months from now, they'll get it up and they'll get it working. People will be signing up."
In the midst of the hearing, the White House tried to get a word in edgewise, Valerie Jarrett tweeting her mother survived breast cancer because she had access to high quality healthcare and the ACA will provide similar coverage to others.
White House officials met during the week with the chief executive officers of Aetna, Humana, CareFirst, BlueCross BlueShield of Florida, Health Net Inc., Health Care Services Corp., Independence BlueCross, America's Health Insurance Plans, Centene Corp., Tufts Health Plan, BlueCross BlueShield Association, Wellpoint and Kaiser Permanente to discuss implementation and enrollment.
Obama made a pre-emptive move Monday to blunt the effect of the hearing, staging a Rose Garden event where he expressed anger over healthcare.gov's shortcomings and vowed a "tech surge" would get the problems fixed in short order.
"Let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a website. It's much more," Obama said.
"What the Affordable Care Act does for you is to provide you with new benefits and protections that have been in place for some time. You may not know it, but you're already benefiting from these provisions in the law."
He urged people to think of the health insurance exchanges as giant group plans that allow people without employer coverage to buy plans at a lower rate than those available in the individual market.
Sebelius told CNN Obama was not aware of the problems with healthcare.gov before the site went live.
The problems with the website rollout have made many Democrats nervous.
"We're working with them and we're going to brief them, we're going to keep everybody updated. We're going to provide as much information as we can on the work that's being done," White House spokesman Jay Carney assured Wednesday.
On Thursday, Carney said though the White House was aware the rollout would not be perfect, "we did not expect, absolutely did not expect, ... the scale of the problems that we've seen. ...
"I'm not an expert on website design and the kind of complexity that's involved in a site like this, but there are issues here that, as I've seen some experts speak to, that have to do with the volume that both caused some and exposed some of the problems that we've seen, that until it went live and we had this influx of millions of Americans going to the website, we did not anticipate."
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