When Kathleen Sebelius last came before Congress, she was a sitting duck. HealthCare.gov was floundering, workers were losing health plans they'd been promised they could keep, and the Affordable Care Act's approval rate was plummeting alongside that of the president who signed it.
This time, when Sebelius visits the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, Republicans won't have it so easy. The website remains a work in progress, but its functionality is improving, and enrollments are on the rise: The first two days of December saw more enrollees in the federal exchange than the entire month of October.
But if Republicans have their way Wednesday—and it's the GOP-controlled House, so they will—October's website worries will have been only a prelude to a louder, longer, and even more contentious conversation about the law itself.
Republicans will focus their testimony on what happens Jan. 1, when they say people who signed up for coverage will face higher out-of-pocket costs, new doctors, and canceled employer plans. For anecdotes, they'll draw from a series of series of Google Hangouts the GOP has hosted with constituents across the country who have grievances about the law.
For her part, Sebelius will attempt to steer the conversation to administrative improvements to HealthCare.gov, as well as to the parts of the law that have always been more popular: people staying on their parents' plans until age 26, savings on prescription drug costs for seniors, and increased insurance access for those with preexisting conditions.
Despite touting its improvement, Sebelius will still have to contend with the lingering flaws in the website, including problems with inaccurate consumer data being reported to insurance companies.
And even as Republicans look to pivot the conversation about the law's future, they have no intention of letting go of the past.
An ongoing investigation by the committee has uncovered documents revealing that the administration knew the website was flawed prior to the Oct. 1 launch. In late March and early April, for instance, Sebelius was briefed about the obstacles HealthCare.gov faced, but she testified to the committee soon afterward that everything was on track.
"We want to know what happened," a Republican committee official said. "For months we were told everything was fine—if you like your doctor, if you like your plan, you can keep it—and we're seeing that those things aren't coming to fruition."
The committee issued a press release with a list of lingering questions—some of which have been answered—that they intend to pursue Wednesday. Among them are inquiries about whether a delay of Oct. 1 was recommended and who was responsible for some of the decisions along the way that led to HealthCare.gov's initial troubles.
The hearing will start at 10 a.m.