Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accepted the political responsibility Wednesday for Obamacare's botched rollout, but it's still not clear exactly what went wrong.
Headed into Wednesday's hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the administration—including Sebelius—had placed the blame for HealthCare.gov on the contractors who built it. And the contractors, in turn, pushed the search for an individual scapegoat somewhere inside the HHS bureaucracy.
Sebelius shouldered the blame herself, though, cutting off Republicans as they asked about more-junior officials' decision-making and deflecting questions about the contractors.
"Hold me accountable for the debacle," Sebelius said. "I'm responsible."
Accepting responsibility herself might be the most efficient way for Sebelius to handle the HealthCare.gov fallout, even if other officials share the real-world responsibility for the site's problems. The Senate would almost surely not confirm a new HHS secretary, meaning her job is likely safe through the end of President Obama's term.
Sebelius said she is confident that the site will be repaired and operational by the end of November. (She said the same thing, however, about the original Oct. 1 deadline.) She said HHS and its contractors are working their way through a "punch list" of known flaws in HealthCare.gov and fixing new problems as they arise.
Although Sebelius's prepared testimony criticized the site's contractors, saying they "have not met expectations," she punted during the hearing when asked whether any specific contractor had failed to deliver the right product.
"The only thing that I think builds back the confidence of the public is fixing it," she said.
She appeared to accept the contractors' criticism that HHS failed to adequately test the website. Contractors told a separate House committee last week that their individual pieces of the federally run insurance exchange worked independently, but the system fell apart once HHS integrated the various components.
"I think the testing that they did is validating the pieces of the equipment. What we've said since the launch is that we did not do adequate end-to-end testing," Sebelius said.
Sebelius acknowledged some of the site's biggest flaws, including the messy and inaccurate information being reported to insurance companies when people try to enroll.
"We do not have any reliable information" on enrollment, Sebelius said as she declined to provide enrollment figures for the 36 states whose marketplaces run through HealthCare.gov.
HHS has said it will provide enrollment information in November.
"I think there is no question that given our flawed launch of HealthCare.gov, it will be a very small number," Sebelius said.
Although Wednesday's hearing might help calm the political blame game, it didn't answer many of the practical questions about why HealthCare.gov—the main portal to access Obamacare's new insurance marketplaces—failed as soon as it launched.
"No one ever imagined the volume of issues and problems that we've had," Sebelius said.
Sebelius had set the Oct. 1 date to launch the exchanges. She said she believed—and told the president—that the site would be ready, and that any technical issues could be resolved easily.
"Clearly I was wrong," Sebelius said.
CGI Federal, the contractor that built the bulk of HealthCare.gov, has said it notified HHS that the time frame to test and launch the site was too short. And Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testified Tuesday that she knew the site had crashed during a test that simulated only a few hundred visitors.
Those details have raised questions about why HHS went ahead with the Oct. 1 launch. But Sebelius said Wednesday that no one recommended a delay to her.
"No senior official ever reporting to me ever advised me that we should delay," she said.
This article appears in the October 31, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.