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Official who made big healthcare website decision a frequent White House visitor

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October
A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this October

By Gabriel Debenedetti and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government official identified as being responsible for a last-minute decision that helped jam up the Obamacare health insurance website has been a frequent presence at the White House, according to visitor logs.

Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), was named Thursday in congressional testimony as the one who ordered the lead contractor to make consumers register before browsing for price information, a step avoided by popular online shopping sites such as Amazon.com.

As a result of this decision made just two weeks before the website went public on October 1, Healthcare.gov was overwhelmed with so many people trying to register at once that the site crashed, Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of lead contractor CGI Federal, told U.S. lawmakers wanting to know why the site had so many problems.

"I believe it was Henry Chao and members of his team," Campbell told the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the agency spearheading the health care program.

Republican opponents of Obamacare who are looking into the website's troubles have been attempting to find out why the change was made and whether the White House was involved in it, theorizing that the administration was trying to erect a barrier that would keep consumers from finding out the true costs of the premiums they would be paying.

They have offered no evidence to support that claim, however, and the administration has denied any such motive. A spokeswoman for CMS said on Friday that the agency was trying to "prioritize the ability for us to launch live so consumers could conduct the full online application process."

She would not comment on whether Chao made the decision that Campbell said had led to problems.

White House visitor records show Chao visiting the White House 36 times between November 2011 and May 2013, with one visit in December 2009, to see President Barack Obama's advisers including health care and technology officials.

The records, which were voluntarily disclosed by the White House, provide information about visits through August 2013. No records were yet available for the month leading up to the launch, so it was not possible to determine whether Chao visited the White House during that period.

Chao, asked for comment, referred Reuters to CMS. Neither the White House nor others at CMS responded immediately to requests for comment on Chao's role.

Starting in May 2012 Chao began visiting often, spending time in the White House or Old Executive Office Building, where many administration offices are based, multiple times per month. He visited at least once monthly between May 2012 and May 2013.

Though he met with an array of officials, he most frequently saw White House healthcare official Jeanne Lambrew.

Two of Chao's visits with Lambrew followed his comments at a conference on March 14, 2013, when he said he was "pretty nervous" about the roll-out of the law's online system.

"Let's just make sure it's not a third-world experience," CQ reported Chao saying at the time. He then visited the White House on March 19 and March 26.

Chao also met White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park twice - in April 2012 and January 2013 - and then-Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel in February 2012.

Chao was a point of contact for contractor CGI Federal as it worked to build the technology backbone of the Healthcare.gov website. CGI Federal is a unit of Canada-based CGI Group Inc.

Some Republicans, notably House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa, say they believe the White House was trying to hide the "sticker shock" of insurance premiums online so as to attract people to sign up for insurance under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

But when asked whether Chao and others at CMS had given reasons for not making the "browser" option live on the website and whether the decision was political, Campbell told lawmakers: "I can't answer whether it was political or otherwise."

She also said she was not aware of any political intervention by the White House itself into her work on Heatlhcare.gov.

(Reporting By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Editing by Fred Barbash and Ken Wills)

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