Have Heads Begun to Roll Over Obamacare Imbroglio?

CIO of agency responsible for HealthCare.gov is out and tech management is reshuffled

2 min read

Willie Jones covers transportation for IEEE Spectrum, and the history of technology for The Institute.

Have Heads Begun to Roll Over Obamacare Imbroglio?
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Wednesday morning, as U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified about the ongoing problems with healthcare.gov at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, the first head rolled as a result of the Obamacare website debacle. It was announced that Tony Trenkle, the CIO of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the HHS entity responsible for creating the healthcare insurance portal, would be leaving his post as of 15 November. According to an e-mail sent to agency employees on Wednesday, Trenkle is “leaving for the private sector”; the agency’s chief operating officer, Michelle Snyder, announced a reshuffling meant to temporarily fill Trenkle’s role.

As for Sebelius, she told senators that, “We’re not where we need to be” with regard to meeting a 30 November deadline set by the administration for making the HealthCare.gov site functional. The HHS secretary revealed that “a couple of hundred functional fixes” would still need be made so the website would not get hung up, display error messages, or make other errors such as displaying blank drop-down boxes. (In this week’s IEEE Spectrum Q&A with risk management expert Robert Charette, he imagined that tackling a punch list containing only 30 items strained credulity.)

Understatement of the week: “It’s a pretty aggressive schedule to get to the entire punch list by the end of November,” Sebelius told the senators.

Asked if the struggle to get the site fully operational warranted extending the sign-up period or delaying the financial penalties for people who go without insurance, Sebelius repeatedly said no.

Montana Democrat Max Baucus, a strong proponent of Obamacare, asked Sebelius whether it might make sense to shut down the site for a short period, make the necessary fixes, then reopen it. “Why just keep limping along?” he asked. Sebelius insisted that CMS’s current tack, working around the clock to identify problems and making changes mostly in the middle of the night, is preferable.

Sebelius, who again took full responsibility for what she herself called an “excruciatingly awful” debut for the online health insurance marketplace, tried to lower expectations about the first official Obamacare enrollment numbers, due next week. She said they were “likely to be quite low, given the struggles that people have had getting access to the site and getting information.” (Actually, that should probably be the understatement of the week.)

It was also revealed this week, in documents released (pdf) by investigators working at the behest of the U.S. House of Representatives, that the soon-to-depart Trenkle and CMS COO Snyder signed an internal memo in late September that proves they knew security controls for HealthCare.gov had not been fully tested. To reduce the risk of sensitive personal information being stolen by hackers, they approved a plan that would shore up security over a six-month period. Imagine how much data could be purloined in that amount of time.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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