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Hearings On Obamacare Rollout Kick Off On Capitol Hill


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. We go first to Capitol Hill this morning, where some government contractors will have a lot of explaining to do. It's the first of what is likely to be a series of hearings on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. More than three weeks after launching, consumers trying out the new health care exchanges have complained of huge delays, inaccurate information, and other online computer glitches. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, House Republicans are determined to shine a bright spotlight on all the problems.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: House Republicans have framed the central question they need to answer this way: Are White House officials clueless, or are they liars? Mike Burgess, of Texas, says he repeatedly asked the administration before the Affordable Care Act rollout if the website was really going to be ready. Over and over, Burgess said, they told him not to worry.

REP. MIKE BURGESS: You know, this - obvious question comes up: Well, were you purposely untruthful with me; or did you really believe this all was going to work, and you just had no earthly idea that the system you devised was so flawed?

CHANG: Since the health care exchanges opened on Oct. 1st, consumers have noticed frequent error messages, long waits to sign up, and sometimes incorrect information about the federal tax credits they qualify for. Burgess says if only administration officials had admitted early on they weren't going to be ready, yes, Republicans might have reveled in that, but he says the White House only made things worse.

BURGESS: You know, when you've got a problem, confess your sins, and go for absolution - and get on with it.

CHANG: Four government contractors that helped build the website will be asked to confess possible sins today. Questions they'll face: Did the breakdowns occur with them, or were they just following directions from the Department of Health and Human Services? Did the contractors notify White House officials about problems earlier? All fair questions. But Henry Waxman, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, says his Republican colleagues aren't actually interested in fixing the exchanges.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Every time they've held a hearing, it has not been to be constructive. It's only to say how terrible this law is.

CHANG: And to some of Waxman's Democratic colleagues on the committee - like Eliot Engel, of New York - the Republicans' obsession with what went wrong with the Obamacare launch just seems really ironic.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Let me say that I think it's wonderful that my Republican colleagues care so much about the Affordable Care Act that they want to make sure it works perfectly. After shutting down the government, and trying to kill it and trying to defund it and voting against it, I'm glad that they're just so concerned about it right now.

CHANG: Meanwhile, President Obama says he's hired additional computer experts to help cure the technical defects. But Republicans like Tim Murphy, of Pennsylvania, are already panning the tech surge as foolish.

REP. TIM MURPHY: This tech surge is comparable to trying to fix a car by overhauling it while it's still rolling down the highway. At some point, you have to decide: Can it be fixed, or do we scrap this and get a new one?

CHANG: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius goes in front of the panel next Wednesday.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.