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Sebelius finds a silver lining in Obamacare 'data hub'

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (L) during a healthcare eve
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talks with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (L) during a healthcare eve

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, besieged by bad news about the new government health care website, sought on Saturday to highlight a portion of the complex system that she said is working well.

The website, designed to let millions of uninsured Americans shop and enroll in health insurance, has been plagued by delays and error messages since it rolled out on October 1, embarrassing President Barack Obama as his administration scrambles to fix the problems.

In an upbeat blog post on Saturday, Sebelius released statistics to illustrate the volume of interest in the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and the speed of the "data hub," one piece of the complex system behind HealthCare.gov.

Sebelius praised the performance of the data hub, which connects to the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service to verify applicants' identity and income.

She said it took the hub less than 1.2 seconds to route information, and called it "a model of efficiency and security."

"The Hub is on the job, and so are we," said Sebelius, who will be grilled about the website by Republican lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday.

The hub was developed by Quality Software Services Inc, or QSSI, a unit of health insurer UnitedHealth Group.

On Friday, the Obama administration announced QSSI would now serve as "general contractor" to oversee repairs by the end of November, a step designed to build public confidence that the website can be salvaged in time for Americans to buy insurance by the end of the year.

The administration has been criticized for not releasing data on how many Americans have successfully enrolled for insurance - information it plans to unveil in November - although it has said almost 700,000 applications for insurance have been filled out.

The government expects about 7 million people to enroll for individual insurance in 2014.

Sebelius said the Social Security Administration has been pinged by the data hub more than 4.2 million times as individuals or households try to establish an account using a social security number, with the biggest numbers coming from Pennsylvania, New York, California, West Virginia and Washington.

The IRS has handled more than 1.3 million requests to verify income and family size tax data from the hub - about 80,000 requests per day - and has been able to provide responses through the hub in less than a second, on average, Sebelius said.

The IRS has also fulfilled more than 330,000 requests for a "computation service" that determines whether someone is eligible for subsidies based on their income, she said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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