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WASHINGTON — The chief information officer with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said Tuesday that he did not see a consultant's report in March that highlighted numerous problems facing the launch of the federal health care exchange.
Henry Chao told a House committee he had not seen the McKinsey & Co. report and did not choose the Oct. 1 start day for the HealthCare.gov website, which has been plagued by problems in the six weeks since its launch.
Chao also told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the tech team fixing HealthCare.gov still has to build 30% to 40% of systems needed to support the website.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama and top aides were briefed in recent months about the kinds of implementation issues and problems raised in the McKinsey report, but were told the website would be ready for operation by October.
Obama, speaking to a group of corporate executives, said that "my website's not working the way it's supposed to," and officials are working on improvements.
"We are getting it fixed," Obama said at the annual meeting of The Wall Street Journal/CEO Council. "But it would have been better to do it on the front end, rather than the back end."
Republicans cited the McKinsey study throughout the House hearing, stressing that at least some officials were warned about website problems.
"We're concerned at multiple levels," said Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa. "It is absolutely clear that the start-up of the website was not going to work well if at all by Oct. 1."
White House and CMS officials said red flags were raised throughout development of the website, but contractors said it would be ready and no one expected the scope of the problems that ensued.
"The president, as we said repeatedly, got regular briefings and was told that there were problems that were being addressed," Carney said, and no one at the White House was warned that "the site would perform as poorly as it did."
CMS spokeswoman Patti Unruh said of the McKinsey study: "The review was completed six months before the beginning of open enrollment, was in line with industry best practices and was followed by concrete action to address potential risks — as was intended."
Unruh said CMS "has continually evaluated progress and has taken steps to prioritize and address concerns and mitigate risks."
CMS contracted with McKinsey in 2010 to review the progress made in the development of the health care exchange, which is where residents of 34 states can go to buy health insurance required by the Affordable Care Act. People who live in the other 16 states and the District of Columbia can buy insurance on exchanges created and maintained by the states.
McKinsey's role was to conduct so-called "red team" exercises in which they reviewed possible pitfalls with the exchanges and how the agency could fix them.
The hearing was another front on which President Obama and aides played defense Tuesday on health care.
A woman spotlighted in an Oct. 21 health care speech at the White House said she has had to drop her new insurance policy because the costs shot up suddenly after her enrollment.
Jessica Sanford, a single mother from Washington state whose enrollment in the health care plan was highlighted by Obama on Oct. 21, told CNN that her initial cost of $169 per month rose to as much as $390 per month, in part because the state had mistakenly said she qualified for a subsidy..
"I had a good cry," Sanford told CNN. "This is it. I'm not getting insurance. That's where it stands right now unless they fix it."
Carney said Sanford went through a state-based insurance exchange, and it is his understanding that officials in Washington are reaching out to her to discuss alternatives.
Meanwhile, officials at the White House and elsewhere cited statistics showing the health care enrollment is surging in several states, including California, Connecticut, Kentucky and Washington.
Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a public letter that the GOP is selectively leaking documents "without appropriate context, without the benefit of witness testimony to provide additional information, and in this latest case, without providing Democratic members timely access."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee's top Democrat, said things seem to be getting better with the website: "We're not where we need to be, but we're seeing improvements. Rather than just attack the health care law and try to undermine, we ought to try to make it work."
Criticism of the health care law appears to be taking a toll on the president's political standing.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll on Tuesday said 55% of respondents now disapprove of Obama's performance, the worst rating of his presidency; 44% "strongly disapprove" of the way Obama is handling his job.
Obama's approval rating is 42%, tied for his all-time low and a drop of 6 percentage points over the past month.
As with other surveys, the fall of Obama's numbers can be traced to problems with the health care website and canceled policies.
During a conference call with supporters Monday night, Obama said that "it turns out that purchasing insurance for a lot of folks is complicated," and the problems are being addressed.
"We've made sure that we've got a strong plan to not just fix the website, which I'm taking responsibility for, but also to make sure there are other ways that people can sign up," Obama said.
Contributing: Kelly Kennedy