HHS now refusing to answer reporters' questions on when Sebelius knew website launch would fail

Here’s a tidbit on yesterday’s HHS conference call which lays bare the agency’s new approach to accountability. Sebelius doesn’t work for you, right? Well, then, why should she have to answer your questions?

According to some accounts, the project’s managers at the Department of Health and Human Services assured the White House that any remaining problems could be worked out once the Web site went live, but other senior department officials predicted serious trouble and advised delaying the rollout.

But on a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials twice declined to answer questions about whether Kathleen Sebelius, Mr. Obama’s health secretary, knew about the problems. Asked if Marilyn Tavenner, the agency’s director, or anyone else had alerted Ms. Sebelius, an official cut off a reporter.

“Next question,” he said.

Sebelius herself told CNN a few days ago that Obama didn’t know about the site’s problems before launch, which is either a lie or an egregious dereliction of The One’s duty to keep tabs on his pet boondoggle as launch day approached. Help me figure this out, though: What’s to be gained at this point by pretending that neither O nor Sebelius knew that they had an Edsel on their hands before rollout? Is anyone, left or right, seriously arguing that they shouldn’t be blamed for the disastrous launch if in fact they maintained total ignorance about the development of a momentous project on which public perceptions of liberal technocratic competence depended? It’s like saying, “No no, of course the president isn’t personally responsible for a site this terrible. He was busy playing golf while they were testing it.” Would that make anyone feel better? I think they’re actually better off admitting that they did know how bad it was but that they thought their crack tech team could fix it on the fly in the first few days after launch. That would be an egregious lie too — in that case, why didn’t the White House grasp the depth of the problem? — but it’s at least a small gesture towards accountability. If you’re going to make things up to avoid saying, “We had to launch it when we did or else the Republicans would ‘win,'” at least make it look like your mistake is a product of too much optimism about your technological capabilities, not too little interest in how a total remake of the U.S. health-care system was going.

Believe it or not, this wasn’t even the worst answer given during yesterday’s conference call. According to Philip Klein, an HHS spokesman claimed that garbled data transmissions from the federal website to insurers after someone registers was an “isolated” problem. If you believe the insurers themselves, that’s a bald-faced lie:

An insurance industry source who requested anonymity pushed back against these accounts, saying the flawed data occurrences were not isolated by any stretch of the imagination.

In addition, Robert Laszewski, a health care consultant who has been in close contact with insurance executives, told the Examiner that he was astounded by the claims of CGI and CMS.

“That’s incredible,” he wrote. “The error rate is 50 percent on enrollments coming through and the carriers can’t go to automated processing until the error rate gets below 5 percent — really below 1 percent … I cannot believe CGI is saying there isn’t a problem.”

Here’s one surprising wrinkle to all this, though. Clay Johnson, who used to be Howard Dean’s tech guru, and Harper Reed, who was in charge of the Obama campaign’s widely lauded tech team last year, have an op-ed in the Times today in which they say, “HealthCare.gov needs to be fixed. We believe that in a few days it will be.” A few days? In three weeks of reading about the website meltdown, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone — anyone — claim that this is a fix that’ll happen in less than a week. The new ObamaCare tech czar, Jeff Zients, said today he’s looking at late November as a timetable. Why would Johnson and Reed spend a little of their own credibility on a prediction like that, then? Do they know something other people don’t, or do they think they know something that’s not actually true and Zients knows better?