11/13/2013 05:20 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2013

Obamacare Website Actually Getting Better, Officials Testify

WASHINGTON -- On the same day the government reported that only 106,185 people have enrolled in Obamacare so far, federal officials painted a picture of an improving health insurance website during a House Oversight Committee hearing.

While most of the comments from members of Congress Wednesday focused on the website's initial dismal performance -- and partisan bickering -- officials detailed a system that they said will never be perfect, but is vastly improved.

The system now has the ability to handle 20,000 to 25,000 visitors to the site simultaneously, can register 17,000 people an hour, has an average response time of less than 1 second instead of eight seconds, and has a site error rate of less than 1 percent, the officials said.

The man charged with fixing the site -- U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park -- said that improvements would continue.

"It's all moving at increasing speed," said Park, who was subpoenaed to testify by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), despite objections from administration and tech experts who thought it would take time away from Park's job.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) somewhat undercut the reported improvements, however, by holding up his iPad and showing that he had been stuck for more than an hour trying to create an account for himself.

"This is the frustration and struggle that a lot of folks have," said Lankford, who asked Park if the feds would hit their goal of a fully functioning site by Nov. 30.

Park did not offer an unequivocal answer, playing into Lankford's argument that the administration should delay the requirement to sign up for insurance by March.

"The goal that has been laid out is for the site not to be perfect by the end of November ... [but] so that the vast majority of Americans will be able to use the site smoothly," Park said. "That's the goal we're gunning for, we're working very hard to get there."

The signs of progress, however, were all but ignored by the committee, which preferred to focus on talking points released earlier this week.

Republicans tried repeatedly to trip up Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who was the lead person in charge of day-to-day work on the site.

He was asked several times about documents that Issa said showed the HealthCare.gov site opened with unresolved "high" security risks, and that the entire system had not been tested for security "end-to-end."

Chao said that the risks mentioned in the memo refer to parts of the system that do not go online until the spring, and that they don't involve consumers. And he objected to a selective leak to CBS News that suggested the risks still exist in the live system.

"I think there was some rearrangement of the words that I used during the testimony in how it was portrayed," Chao said.

He also repeatedly said that the system was not tested "end-to-end" because parts that need to be ready later are still being built.

He was backed up by David Powner, the director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office. Powner was highly critical of the government's job working with contractors to get the system running properly, but he clarified that there was no issue with the parts of the system being discussed by Issa, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) and other Republicans.

"I think the key is, that was an early assessment not on the complete system," he said of the leaked document.

Chao was also given the opportunity to answer Issa's charges that the White House ordered him to disable the "anonymous shopper" portion of the website because it would give health insurance browsers "sticker shock."

He argued that the shopper system simply wasn't working.

"I look at the facts of whether a system is going to be ready," Chao said. "And of course not everything is always 100 percent and there are certain tolerances. But in this case it failed so miserably that we could not conscionably let people use it."

Perhaps the biggest embarrassment for the federal technicians was their inability to say that anyone was to blame for what nearly all observers said was a spectacularly bad start.

Frustrated Republicans continued to insist that politics were involved, and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggested that White House health care adviser Jeanne Lambrew and deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle should be subpoenaed, since the White House did not make them available.

"We're probably going to have to do the same thing for them that we did for you," Jordan told Park after badgering him and others for evidence of political influence.

The most remarkable moment of the hearing may have been when Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) offered the witnesses the chance to make an open-ended response to the attacks leveled at them.

Chao responded by commenting on the way his reports and work had been twisted.

"I'm not being defensive in terms of me, I'm being defensive in terms of the truth," Chao said. "So when I detect that there are distortions, or misuse or unrevealed things about [information] that I spent nine hours with your staff, basically being deposed, I am going to be defensive, because that is not the truth."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.



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