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Next Obamacare enrollment period faces bumps: U.S. official

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. consumers who purchase private health coverage through the federal Obamacare website HealthCare.gov are likely to find only modestly higher premiums but may still have technical problems signing up, a top health official said on Thursday.

"It won't be perfect," Andrew Slavitt, a newly appointed principal deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), told lawmakers at hearing before a House of Representatives oversight committee.

"It's a bumpy process at times," he added. "I think we've got a committed team of people, though, that by and large are doing a very good job. But there will clearly be bumps."

However, Slavitt said the three-month 2015 open enrollment period that begins Nov. 15 will be under vastly different circumstances from HealthCare.gov's botched launch last October, when the website was overwhelmed by technical problems for weeks.

Despite claims by Obamacare's foes that consumers would face double-digit cost increases for 2015, Slavitt said early indications from several states, including Rhode Island, Delaware and Washington, point to premium hikes in the mid-single digits.

“While this isn’t going to be true for every single individual and every single county in America, by and large the early results look very positive,” he said.

Slavitt was previously an executive at a government contractor working on the site and a leader of the rescue team that turned around HealthCare.gov in time to allow more than 5 million people in 36 states to obtain coverage.

He said the administration has overcome planning, management and cost control problems that led to the disastrous rollout and a subsequent explosion of costs that hit $840 million in March.

Slavitt was speaking before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations subcommittee a day after the watchdog Government Accountability Office reported soaring increases in contractor costs for the federal marketplace.

He said CMS now has a better handle on two factors that led to overruns: the size and complexity of the operation and a lack of control over contractor costs and performances. "I don't expect those overruns," he said.

But Slavitt still cautioned lawmakers about the potential of higher costs, saying: "It is not unusual for large-scale health projects ... (to) cost a couple billion dollars to put in place."

The Obama administration has billed Slavitt's appointment as part of an effort to bring fresh talent to CMS, the federal agency implementing President Barack Obama's healthcare law.

Republicans raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest, pointing out that Slavitt's job at CMS is to oversee his former employer, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group Inc that has a government contract to work on HealthCare.gov.

UnitedHealth also sells insurance policies on the federal exchange.

Slavitt said he has disposed of his holdings in the company and signed an ethics pledge that limits his interaction with his former employer to the marketplace implementation project.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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