Republicans set to grill Kathleen Sebelius over Healthcare.gov glitches

Health and Human Services secretary will face House panel on Wednesday

Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services Secretary, will testify before Congress over the glitch-plagued healthcare.gov website Wednesday.
Laura Segall/Getty Images

Republicans said Sunday they intend to press Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this week over the Obama administration's troubled launch of healthcare.gov, the online portal to buy health insurance – a key part of the Affordable Care Act.

Last week, congress asked the contractors involved with the site to answer for its flawed rollout. President Barack Obama has vowed to fix the problems. 

The Obama administration will face intense pressure in the coming days over glitches to the online system, amid calls that it needs to be more forthcoming about how many people have actually succeeded in enrolling for coverage in the new insurance markets. Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner is to testify during a House hearing on Tuesday, followed Wednesday by Sebelius before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The White House says 500,000 people have signed up for health care under the new law. 

The officials will also be grilled on how technical problems could have gone undetected prior to the website's Oct. 1 launch.

On Sunday, in the latest blow to Healthcare.gov, a component of the online system that had been working relatively well experienced an outage. The federal data services hub, a conduit for verifying the personal information of people applying for benefits under the law, went down in a failure that was blamed on an outside contractor, Terremark.

"Today, Terremark had a network failure that is impacting a number of their clients, including healthcare.gov," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said. "Secretary Sebelius spoke with the CEO of Verizon this afternoon to discuss the situation and they committed to fixing the problem as soon as possible.

Meanwhile opponents to Obama’s health care reforms continued to make political capital of the technical glitches.

"The incompetence in building this website is staggering," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the second ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  

Democrats said the new system needed time to get up and running, and it could be fixed to provide millions of people with affordable insurance.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said the system was "working in Kentucky," a state that has dealt with "some of the worst health statistics in the country ... The only way we're going to get ourselves out of the ditch is some transformational tool," like the new health insurance system.   

Some states such as Kentucky have set up their own online exchanges which appear to be working better than the federal website which covers three dozen states.

Many Republican-led states refused to set up their own exchanges because their governors oppose the health care overhaul, claiming it will cost jobs and increase government spending.  

The marketplaces are the gateway to obtaining health insurance under the new health care law, which requires most Americans to have coverage by Jan. 1. Middle-class people who don't have insurance on the job can purchase a private plan with new tax credits to make the premiums more affordable.

Low-income people will be steered to an expanded version of Medicaid -- the government-funded program that provides health care coverage for the poor -- in states that agree to extend the safety net program

The U.S. has been the only major developed country without a national health care system, and the overhaul was supposed to change that. The system is not the centralized, government-run setup seen in places like Britain and instead uses various ways to require or encourage Americans to get private or, for the poor or elderly, government-provided insurance.

What's become known as "Obamacare" is the closest the U.S. has ever come to universal health care after a century of efforts, and it has been under heavy attack by opposition Republicans from the start.

Now, with congressional elections coming next year, Republicans are using the troubled launch of the government website to regain momentum after their effort to defund Obamacare led to a 16-day partial government shutdown.

Blackburn said she wanted to know much has been spent on the website, how much more it will cost to fix the problems, when everything will be ready and what people should expect to see on the site. Blackburn and Republican Rep. Mike Rogers also raised questions of whether the website could guard the privacy of applicants.

"The way the system is designed it is not secure," said Rogers, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

The administration sought to reassure applicants about their personal information. HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said when consumers fill out their applications, "they can trust that the information they're providing is protected by stringent security standards and that the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure."

The botched rollout has led to calls on Capitol Hill for a delay of penalties for those remaining uninsured. The Obama administration has said it's willing to extend the grace period until Mar. 31, the end of open enrollment. That's an extra six weeks.

The insurance industry says going beyond that risks undermining the new system by giving younger, healthier people a pass.  Their premiums are needed to offset the increased cost of covering older people with pre-existing conditions who now cannot be turned down for insurance.

Several Democratic senators are among those calling for a delay to the penalty for noncompliance. Sen. Joe Manchin, who is seeking a yearlong delay to the penalty for noncompliance, said his approach would "still induce people to get involved, but it will also give us the time to transition in. And I think we need that transition period to work out the things."

The administration was under no legal requirement to launch the website Oct 1. Sebelius, who designated her department's Medicare agency to implement the health care law, had the discretion to set open enrollment dates. Officials could have postponed open enrollment by a month, or they could have phased in access to the website.

But all through last summer and into early fall, the administration insisted it was ready to go live in all 50 states on Oct. 1.

An HHS memo prepared for Sebelius in September estimated that nearly 500,000 people would enroll for coverage in the marketplaces during October, their first month of operation. The actual number is likely to be only a fraction of that. The administration has said 700,000 people have completed applications.

On Friday, the Obama administration acknowledged the HealthCare.gov website has dozens of complex problems and tapped a private company to oversee fixes.

Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant brought in by the White House to assess the extent of problems, told reporters the website is "fixable" and the majority of issues will be resolved by the end of November.  

Blackburn spoke on "Fox News Sunday," Beshear appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rogers was on CNN's "State of the Union," Manchin was interviewed on ABC's "This Week," and Shaheen made her comments on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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