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Feds bring in troubleshooter for health insurance exchange

Kathleen Hennessey McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON – A familiar troubleshooter has been enlisted to try to fix the government’s health insurance website, administration officials said Tuesday, as political pressure piled up over the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Jeffrey Zients, a former acting director at the Office of Management and Budget, will assist the Department of Health and Human Services with “short-term advice, assessments and recommendations,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Zients has served as the chief performance officer at OMB, a job aimed at improving government technology and efficiency.

Zients will lead the “tech surge” to repair, which has been riddled with debilitating problems since its launch Oct. 1. But the involvement of an experienced manager did little to silence Republican critics or calm Democrats worried about fallout from the botched rollout of the website that is supposed to link uninsured consumers with affordable private insurance plans.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., called on the administration to extend open enrollment beyond the March 31 deadline. “Allowing extra time for consumers is critically important so they have the opportunity to become familiar with the website, survey their options and enroll,” Shaheen wrote in a letter to the president.

The senator also asked for clarification on whether the administration would enforce the fine that individuals who did not have insurance next year would be required to pay. “If an individual is unable to purchase health insurance due to technical problems with enrollment, they should not be penalized because of lack of coverage,” she wrote.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats traded charges over an administration briefing on the Affordable Care Act scheduled today for Democrats.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the Democrats-only briefing a “snub.” He said Republicans had asked for the same briefing and called on the administration “to honor its promises of transparency.”

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said House Democrats had held such briefings for months.

“While we appreciate House Republicans’ newfound interest in the implementation of health reform,” he said in a statement, “it is clear they are not interested in anything other than continuing their desperate drive to sabotage this law.”

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the department had conducted numerous briefings on Capitol Hill. “We are happy to hold additional ones as requests come in,” she said.

The White House often touts its commitment to transparency and open government, but administration officials have largely dodged questions about whether they are considering extending the deadline. On Tuesday, Carney also avoided answering questions about the cause of the problems, saying that the administration is focusing on identifying issues and fixing them quickly.

“You know, we’re not interested in Monday-morning quarterbacking,” Carney said. “No one in the administration is satisfied by the performance of the website thus far and the consumer experience that it has provided.”

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