As I reported on August 14, an email obtained by Congress shows the top official for Healthcare.gov at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Department of Health and Human Services, Marilyn Tavenner, instructed the agency’s top spokesman to “Please delete this email.”
The email to be deleted included an exchange between key White House officials and CMS officials. It was dated October 5, 2013, five days into the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov. It’s not known why Tavenner wanted the email deleted or whether her instruction was followed, in what would apparently be a violation of federal record keeping laws. It raises the natural question: was it the first time Tavenner issued such an instruction, or was this routine? Do other federal officials operate similarly?
Analysis is offered with the help of a knowledgeable insider.
“The request for Julie Bataille to delete the email suggests that there was active consideration given to what the public record should and shouldn’t include, which looks pretty damning,” comments an official familiar with the players, who prefers not to be identified so that he or she can be more candid.
What is the reason Tavenner wouldn’t want this particular email exchange retained? The insider offers a few of the many possibilities.
First, to maintain the appearance of little interaction between the White House and CMS.
“In practice, there was a very close working relationship between CMS and the White House throughout 2010-2013, but public statements usually implied that there was little White House involvement with the development and rollout of the Marketplaces. The email exchange contradicts this claim, indicating that [the White House’s] Jeanne Lambrew was actively in touch with everything going on, including the very detailed operations.”
Another reason Tavenner might want the email deleted, says the official, is to erase evidence of statistics.
“The email contained a couple of statistics…[but] the Administration was emphasizing that there weren’t many statistics available, so deleting a reference to such statistics (even though obscure) might have been intended to comply with the ‘we got no information’ campaign.”
A third possible reason offered: to avoid keeping a record of what could allegedly be an attempt to mislead.
“The purpose of [Tavenner’s] note…was to ask her [public relations official] to revise the ‘script’ used by telephone Customer Service Representatives. This request was a reaction to [the White House’s Lambrew] concern that a [customer service representative] told her it was not possible to enroll in a plan without going through the website.”
Remember, at the time, the Obama administration was telling the public that anyone having trouble with the broken website could easily submit a paper application or go through a HealthCare.gov customer service rep on the phone. However, it soon became apparent that such alternative applications still depended on having an online account.
“[Lambrew’s] concern on October 5  seems to have been that the [HealthCare.gov customer service representatives] were spilling the beans and contradicting the ‘easy alternative’ message. The intent of the script changes would be to prevent the [customer service representatives] from providing an accurate (but inconvenient) answer.”
HealthCare.gov Officials Depart in Droves
The CMS PR official to whom Tavenner gave the instruction to delete was a political appointee: Julie Bataille was the director of CMS’ Office of Communications. She recently left CMS, as have a significant number of federal health officials involved in HealthCare.gov. Bataille had fielded daily questions from journalists, often leaving them complaining that the questions hadn’t been answered.
Tavenner announced Bataille’s resignation in an email stating,
“It is with mixed emotions that I let you know that Julie Bataille, has decided to leave CMS this summer to pursue new opportunities…This time has been one of extraordinary change and growth for our agency and her work has gone a long way to enhance the agency’s ongoing efforts and further its mission in an age of rapidly changing communications, customer service and technology.”
Prior to her job at CMS, Bataille had worked as Deputy Director of Communications for Vice President Al Gore and the Gore 2000 Presidential Campaign. She also worked as the main press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration and as a Clinton-era White House assistant press secretary.
“A number of Obama administration communications officials as well as policy experts have left the administration.”
Among the CMS media relations officials who recently left, according to the article, include:
Emma Sandoe, who will pursue a graduate degree at Harvard.
Richard Olague, who returned to the Health Resources and Services Administration (another federal agency).
Joanne Peters, Health and Human Services (HHS) chief spokeswoman, left to work for the re-election campaign of Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.
The June article listed “former Obama administration health care officials who have left or will soon leave include”:
Kathleen Sebelius, HHS Secretary,
Jonathan Blum, Principal CMS deputy administrator,
Gary Cohen, CMS Center for Insurance Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO),
Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, CMS CCIIO Deputy,
Chris Jennings, White House advisor,
Kurt DelBene, “Tech guru,”
Michael Hash, HHS Office of Health Reform Director.
Michelle Snyder, CMS COO, retired after the HealthCare.gov launch.
Tony Trenkle, CMS’ chief information officer, left abruptly after HealthCare.gov launched.