Sebelius takes responsibility for health care site 'debacle,' vows fixes

Health and Human Services secretary testifies that despite website issues, 'people want to buy this product'

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified Wednesday at a congressional hearing on the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Amid calls for her to step down, Kathleen Sebelius, President Barack Obama's top health official, apologized on Wednesday for the botched rollout of the government's health care website, acknowledging that it was a "debacle," while also blaming insurers for canceling coverage for hundreds of thousands of people.

Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services (HHS), testified at a congressional hearing about the troubled website at the heart of Obama's health care overhaul and vowed to win back the confidence of millions of disappointed Americans. Her testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee came a day after another Obama administration official apologized for glitches with the site. 

"Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible," Sebelius said in response to questions from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., about who was to blame for problems that have prevented people from signing up for health insurance plans through online exchanges — a key part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Sebelius is promising to have the problems fixed by Nov. 30, and told the committee that the technical issues that led to frozen screens and error messages are being cleared up on a daily basis.

Consumers have also complained that the site often kicks them off before they can complete their application.

Addressing consumers, Sebelius said, "So let me say directly to these Americans, you deserve better. I apologize."

Sebelius faced tough questioning from Republican members of the committee over technical problems on the portal.

"You accepted a risk on behalf of every user ... that put their personal financial information at risk," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told Sebelius. "Amazon would never do this. ProFlowers would never do this. Kayak would never do this. This is completely an unacceptable level of security."

Sebelius countered that the system is secure, even though the site has a temporary certificate, known in government parlance as an "authority to operate." She said a permanent certificate will be issued only once all security issues are addressed.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate health committee, on Tuesday joined the list of GOP lawmakers calling for Sebelius to go.

"Taxpayers have spent $400 million to create exchanges that, after three and a half years, still don't work," Alexander said. "No private-sector chief executive officer would escape accountability after such a poor performance."

Itching for the numbers

Lawmakers pressed the HHS secretary for firm numbers on how many people have so far enrolled in plans through the health exchanges. To date the Obama administration has refused to divulge the actual figure, with officials stating that it will not be available until mid-November. Sebelius said during the hearing that there was "no reliable data" yet with regard to enrollment numbers.

Obama, meanwhile, spoke in Massachusetts about health care at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall on Wednesday afternoon. He said he wasn't happy about the health care website glitches and takes "full responsibility for making sure that it gets fixed ASAP."

Obama reminded his listeners of the sluggish start that Massachusetts itself had getting people to sign up for health care reforms that later proved highly successful. In 2006, then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, was joined by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy to sign the state's health care overhaul bill — on which the ACA was in part modeled. 

Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor who advised both Romney and Obama on the development of their laws, told The Associated Press that only 123 paying consumers signed up during the first month of the Massachusetts law, with 36,000 coming on by the time penalties kicked in for those who failed to have insurance.

The issue of some individuals receiving cancellation notices from their existing health care providers also came up in the Sebelius hearing. The secretary defended the administration by describing hundreds of thousands who have received cancellation notices as the victims of a market long known for discriminating against the sick, canceling policies and selling inadequate insurance.

"The individual market ... anywhere in the country has never had consumer protections. People are on their own. They can be locked out, priced out, dumped out" by insurers, Sebelius said.

Throughout the hearing, Sebelius was respectful and poised, often addressing lawmakers as "Sir" or "Congresswoman." She kept her cool as some lawmakers repeatedly cut off her answers. But she did not shy a few times from tersely interjecting her views while a member was speaking.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, scoffed at the Republicans' "oversight" of a law they have repeatedly tried to repeal.

"I would urge my colleagues to stop hyperventilating," he said. "The problems with HealthCare.gov are unfortunate and we should investigate them, but they will be fixed. And then every American will have — finally have access to affordable health insurance."

Medicare chief's mea culpa

On Tuesday, Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner was questioned for nearly three hours by members of the House Ways and Means Committee. During the grilling, she delivered a direct mea culpa of her own.

"I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should," she said. 

Tavenner said the website is improving and the problems should be resolved by the end of November, giving consumers ample time to get coverage by the March 31 deadline.

She was also asked by members of the committee about why many of their constituents were getting cancellation notices from their insurance companies. 

"So what happened to the 'If you like your insurance, you can keep it' question?" asked Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the committee.

Camp was referring to one of the president's earliest promises about the health law: You can keep your plan if you like it.

As early as last spring, state insurance commissioners started giving insurers the option of canceling existing individual plans for 2014, because the coverage required under Obama's law is significantly more robust. Some states directed insurers to issue cancellations. Large employer plans that cover most workers and their families are unlikely to be affected.

The law includes a complicated "grandfathering" system to try to make good on Obama's pledge. It shields plans from the law's requirements provided the plans themselves change very little. Insurers say it has proved impractical. 

Tavenner blamed insurance companies for canceling the policies and said most people who lose coverage will be able to find better replacement plans in the health insurance exchanges, in some cases for less money.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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