Will Heads Roll? Who Gets Fired Over Obamacare?

HealthCare.gov improved, but Obama cites "poor execution."

December 5, 2013, 3:09 PM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2013 — -- The development and roll-out of the federal online health insurance marketplace has been panned inside and outside the White House as a management fiasco. But still unclear, two months after its launch, is whether any administration officials directly responsible for the project will be shown the door.

With HealthCare.gov now vastly improved, there is renewed focus on accountability for the troubled launch that came after three years of planning and more than $600 million spent. President Obama hasn't indicated who, if anybody, he might fire.

What It Takes to Get Fired From the Obama Administration

Obama hasn't been bashful about casting blame generally, on Wednesday citing "poor execution" by his team in getting the website up and running and conceding that "nobody has acquitted themselves very well these past few months."

A report released by the Department of Health and Human Services this week fingered "inadequate management oversight and coordination among technical teams" as primary factors in the roll-out mess.

"The conclusion was that HealthCare.gov was fixable if we made significant changes to the management approach," said Jeff Zients, the administration official brought in to lead the repair effort, on Sunday.

"We needed to get the team working with the speed and urgency of a high-performing private sector tech company," he said. The implication is that the team had not been sufficiently motivated or directed ahead of the Oct. 1 launch.

Obamacare December Sign-Ups Top 29K After Repairs

None of the senior staff overseeing the website and its team of developers have been publicly disciplined or dismissed. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner, CMS project manager Henry Chao and other top IT officials remain at their posts.

The only shake-up since the rocky roll-out came early last month when CMS chief information officer Tony Trenkle quietly announced his retirement. Officials said at the time that Trenkle decided to leave of his own accord to take a new job in the private sector. He is the first and only official with ties to the botched roll-out of HealthCare.gov to leave the administration.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Tuesday that responsibility for failures of that team rises to the West Wing. "That's on us, that's on me," he said at a health care policy forum in Washington. "As soon as we realized there were problems, we put in an A Team of experts to work."

Many Republicans and Democrats have questioned why the administration did not have the "A Team" in place to begin with. In late October, after a barrage of website outages and glitches, the White House announced a "tech surge" – a combination of government contractors and private sector experts – to turn things around.

CGI Federal and QSSI, the two primary contractors that built the federal insurance portal from the ground up, have largely deflected blame, pointing the finger at the Obama administration for delayed decision-making and flawed planning.

"It will be inexplicable if somebody involved in the creation of the website doesn't get fired or a group of people don't get fired," former Obama adviser and spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday on "Now with Alex Wagner."

Obama Not Focused on Website Personnel Issues

"I mean let's be clear, if there's one thing the White House didn't do on this, they didn't micro-manage bureaucracy enough," he said. Referring to Zients' announcement Sunday of a vastly improved management ethos, Gibbs said. "The 'private-sector velocity' should also include the velocity of moving somebody's framed pictures out of their office and into a new job."

If the past five years are any guide, Obama will not move quickly to ask for resignations. Just a handful of those who serve as the pleasure of the president have been forced to resign. And aides say Obama has never been easily swayed by public and media eagerness for more heads to roll.

"Issues on personnel are not something that we're focused on right now, when it comes to making the Affordable Care Act work for the American people," White House press secretary Jay Carney told ABC's Jonathan Karl on Monday.

"We're focused not on Monday morning quarterbacking," he said. "We'll go back and look at this period, and there's no question that, you know, [the president] tops the list among those individuals who are frustrated by the failures that we saw with healthcare.gov and its launch. But right now, he wants his team focused on making improvements for the American people."

Asking in an interview last month whether he still has confidence in Sebelius, Obama signaled -- though did not say outright -- that he does, taking responsibility for the program's failures upon himself.

"I think Kathleen Sebelius, under tremendously difficult circumstances over the last four and a half years, has done a great job in setting up the insurance markets so that there is a good product out there for people to get," Obama told NBC News.

"Kathleen Sebelius doesn't write code. Yeah, she wasn't our IT person. I think she'd be the first to admit that if we had to do it all over again, that there would have been a whole lot more questions that were asked, in terms of how this thing is working," he said. "Ultimately, the buck stops with me."

As for Zients, who is credited with largely resolving the management issues, he is still expected to step down from his role later this month to replace Gene Sperling as the chair of the National Economic Council in January. No successor to Zients has been named.

"I am head-down focused on this project 24/7," he said. "The general contractor and rapid response team have served us well, enabling us to execute with private sector speed and focus. ... They've been in seat, and they'll stay in seat."