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Sebelius says ObamaCare website will remain a work in progress after key deadline

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday that the ObamaCare website will still be a work in progress beyond the end of the month, apparently lowering the bar on a key deadline to fix the problem-plagued website. 

"The 30th of November is not a magic go, no-go date. It is a work of constant improvement. We have some very specific things we know we need to complete by the 30th and that punch list is getting knocked out every week," Sebelius told The Associated Press.

Sebelius' comments came as Henry Chao, deputy chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testified at a House subcommittee on Energy and Commerce hearing that the site will be “greatly improved” by the end of the month -- not fixed. 

Chao said Tuesday that up to 40 percent of the technical systems supporting the federal health insurance marketplaces have not yet been built, including a system to issue payments to insurance companies, The Washington Post reported.  

The Obama administration has staked its credibility on turning HealthCare.gov around by Nov. 30. Administration officials, including the president, have said the website will be running smoothly for the "vast majority of users" by the month's end. 

At an Oct. 30 congressional hearing, Sebelius projected "an optimally functioning website" by the end of November. On Nov. 5, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testified that the site would be "fully functioning" by that date.

Last week, President Obama said the "the improvement will be marked and noticeable."

On Tuesday, Sebelius told the AP it would work for most users by the end of the month, but would still require fixes because of the magnitude of the first-of-its-kind project. 

"We recognize that there will still be periodic spikes, glitches, whatever that people will experience," she said.

When asked why officials pushed ahead with the Oct. 1 launch date despite warnings the site hadn't been properly tested, Sebelius said they were hoping to give consumers as much time as possible to enroll before coverage begins in January. 

"We were hoping to maximize that," she said. "Clearly that was a bad call." 

Federal health officials made significant improvements implementing software fixes over the weekend, mostly dealing with the application portion, which had stymied many users. More than 90 percent can now successfully complete their applications, HHS communications director Julie Bataille said.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers used the release of a consultant's report warning about potential risks with the implementation of HealthCare.gov to call into question the administration's pre-rollout assurances on the website's functionality.

The report, prepared by McKinsey & Co. in late March, discussed several issues that could hamper the implementation of ObamaCare, including insufficient testing and evolving requirements. The report also warned that the program relied too heavily on outside contractors. 

Key administration officials at the White House and Department of Health and Human Services received briefings this past spring from McKinsey on the report's findings, according to a Capitol Hill source.  

At Tuesday's hearing by a subcommittee of the House Energy and Oversight Committee, Chao, who is widely seen as the operational official most knowledgeable about ObamaCare's online system, said he never saw the McKinsey report.   

Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., used the report to challenge the accuracy of April testimony by Sebelius that the site was "on track."  

"But we now know that the secretary's testimony did not match what was happening behind the scenes," Upton said, claiming the site was on track "for disaster."

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said the reports reveal "chaos in the Obama administration."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later acknowledged that Obama was briefed as early as March, and said he "absolutely" followed up to see if changes had been made. But he said officials still didn't anticipate the site would perform as poorly as it did.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.