WASHINGTON (AFP) - Furious US lawmakers demanded answers Wednesday ahead of a hotly anticipated hearing to probe the troubled rollout of the "Obamacare" website, which they described as a half-billion-dollar debacle.
President Barack Obama and his administration are on the back foot, enduring a barrage of criticism for failures stemming from this month's debut of Healthcare.gov, through which millions of Americans are expected to sign up for insurance.
The process has been overwhelmed by technical glitches, and the House of Representatives' Republican leadership - long opposed to the reform - has seized the opportunity to schedule two hostile hearings, including Thursday's panel.
"The rollout of Obamacare is nothing short of a debacle and the American people are now fearful of their health care," number two House Republican Eric Cantor told reporters.
"What's not helping is a lack of transparency on the part of this administration." With many up in arms about the problems, staff from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) briefed top House Democrats about the problems and the ways forward - but Republicans were left out.
Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi emerged to say that while the online hiccups were "unacceptable," the problems would be fixed in due course, and that there was no talk in the meeting of delaying the law's so-called individual mandate, which compels most Americans to have health insurance by January 1 or pay a fine.
"I have faith in technology," Ms Pelosi said. "And while there are glitches, there are solutions as well, so I'm optimistic that we'll be able to go forward on schedule." Some lawmakers have demanded that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lose her job over the fiasco, but she stood her ground Wednesday.
"I think my job is to get this fully implemented and get the website working right. That's really what I'm focused on," she told CNN.
While insisting top experts were now helping resolve the problems, she appeared at a loss to explain why contractors did not have their own best teams on the website work.
"I can't tell you," Ms Sebelius said. "We hoped they had their 'A' team on the table." Ms Sebelius declined to testify at Thursday's House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, but she is expected to appear before the committee next week.
Congressman Tim Murphy, who chairs the panel's oversight subcommittee, is demanding answers for why costs ballooned for the 55 contractors working on a project that has yielded such poor results.
"All told, more than half a billion dollars was spent on a website that just doesn't work," he said.
"Given all these questions, we should press 'pause' on this president's tech surge, where he wants to spend untold more amounts of money to throw after a bad website when we don't really know if this one is even salvageable." To turn the website around, the White House has called on Jeff Zients, a management expert and the incoming chief of the National Economic Council.
Murphy blasted Obama for the pick, saying "the president tapped an individual to fix a technology problem without any technology problem experience."