Head of Connecticut's health exchange to lead federal Obamacare marketplace
A woman looks at the Obamacare HealthCare insurance exchange Internet site (AFP)

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday named the head of Connecticut's state health exchange to oversee the federal marketplace that provides subsidized private health insurance to consumers in 36 states under Obamacare.

In a move that administration officials billed as an effort to bring new accountability to the federal operation, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced that Kevin Counihan would oversee federal operations, as well as health insurance regulation, in the new post of marketplace chief executive officer.

His appointment comes less than a year after the botched rollout of the federal marketplace enrollment portal, HealthCare.gov, which crashed during its launch on Oct. 1, 2013, plunging President Barack Obama's healthcare law into a political crisis for months.

A federal technology rescue operation led by outside experts eventually got the system working, allowing enrollment to surpass expectations by topping 8 million people.

Many of the problems behind the disastrous launch were attributed to lax management. White House allies on healthcare reform, including the Center for American Progress think tank, had pressed the administration to place the operation under a single CEO before open enrollment for 2015 resumes on Nov. 15.

Counihan oversaw the successful launch of Connecticut's health insurance exchange, Access Health CT, which was the first state marketplace to surpass enrollment targets by signing up nearly 260,000 people. Federal and state officials have credited Counihan's leadership with helping to cut Connecticut's uninsured rate to 4.0 percent, from 7.9 percent since 2012.

Connecticut was one of 14 states that chose to operate their own health insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act. But some state-run operations, including those in Oregon and Maryland, encountered major problems. Nine states have since contacted Connecticut about using its technology, according to officials.

"He ran one of the most successful exchanges by understanding what could be done, and what could not be done, in a very short time," said Topher Spiro, healthcare analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Republicans in Congress, who have attacked the Obamacare marketplace as a costly and unworkable government program, had no immediate comment on the appointment.

About 85 percent of those who enrolled in private insurance for 2014 qualified for federal subsidies to help pay for coverage, according to officials.

"We are committed to instilling ongoing accountability for reaching milestones, measuring results and ensuring a successful open enrollment period," Burwell said in a statement issued by the HHS.

Counihan will report to Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the lead federal agency for Obamacare implementation.

The administration has also announced the creation of a new chief technology officer post that would oversee the HealthCare.gov website and report to Counihan.

On Tuesday, the agency announced that Tim Hughey, an executive with Accenture PLC, the lead contractor for HealthCare.gov, would fill the role of CTO through the next open enrollment period, which ends Feb. 15, 2015. An official said the administration is still looking for a permanent CTO.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Dan Grebler)