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Investigation faults Obama administration's oversight of HealthCare.gov

FILE - This March 1, 2014 file photo shows part of the website for HealthCare.gov, photographed in Washington. Management failures by the Obama administration set the stage for the computer woes that paralyzed the president's new health care program last fall, nonpartisan investigators said in testimony released Wednesday. After a months-long investigation, the Government Accountability Office found that the administration lacked

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FILE - This March 1, 2014 file photo shows part of the website for HealthCare.gov, photographed in Washington. Management failures by the Obama administration set the stage for the computer woes that paralyzed the president's new health care program last fall, nonpartisan investigators said in testimony released Wednesday. After a months-long investigation, the Government Accountability Office found that the administration lacked "effective planning or oversight practices" for the development of HealthCare.gov, the online portal to coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File)

WASHINGTON - Management failures by the Obama administration set the stage for computer woes that paralyzed the president's new health care program last year, nonpartisan investigators said in a report released Wednesday.

While the administration was publicly assuring consumers that they would soon have seamless online access to health insurance, a chaotic procurement process was about to deliver a stumbling start.

Republicans have hammered at the president over the program known as "Obamacare" and hope to capitalize on its problems in the November congressional elections.

The health law, passed in 2010, is intended to extend insurance coverage to millions of Americans who had lacked it. Republicans have long opposed the law, particularly its requirement for Americans to carry insurance or face penalties.

Obama has already survived the worst fallout from the bungled launch of the program, so the report is unlikely to create major political problems for the White House and Democrats generally. But it does shine light on what was going on behind the scenes even as administration officials fostered the impression that signing for health care would be simple, like shopping online.

Obama's political operatives harnessed technology to help him win a second term in the White House, but his staff has had its troubles with administrative details.

After a months-long investigation, the Government Accountability Office found that the administration lacked "effective planning or oversight practices" for the development of HealthCare.gov, the portal for millions of uninsured Americans.

As a result the government incurred "significant cost increases, schedule slips and delayed system functionality," William Woods, a GAO contracting expert, said in testimony prepared for a hearing Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. GAO is the nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress.

Spokesman Aaron Albright said the administration takes its responsibility for contract oversight seriously and has already started carrying out improvements that go beyond GAO's recommendations. The congressional investigators recommended a cost control plan and other changes to establish clear procedures and improve oversight.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican and one of the lawmakers who requested the investigation, said "millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted to build a website that didn't work, all because of bureaucratic incompetence."

Investigators found that the administration kept changing the contractors' marching orders for the HealthCare.gov website, creating widespread confusion and adding tens of millions of dollars in costs. Changes were ordered seemingly willy-nilly, including 40 times when government officials did not have the initial authority to incur additional costs.

The report faults the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service for ineffective oversight. Known as CMS, the agency is part of the Department of Health and Human Services and was designated to administer Obama's health care law.

GAO concluded:

— Contractors were not given a coherent plan, and instead jumped around from issue to issue.

— The cost of a glitchy computerized sign-up system for consumers ballooned from $56 million to more than $209 million from Sept. 2011 to Feb. 2014. The cost of the electronic backroom for verifying applicants' information jumped from $30 million to almost $85 million.

— CMS, representing the administration, failed to follow up on how well the contractors performed.

—A third contract, for fixes to the website, grew from $91 million in January to $175 million as of last month.

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Online:

GAO report: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-694

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