Sebelius Promises Obamacare Fixes, But It’s Still Not Clear What’s Wrong

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 30: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is sworn in prior to the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing about the troubled launch of the Healthcare.gov website October 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. The federal healthcare insurance exchange site has been plagued by problems since its launch on October 1. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sam Baker and Clara Ritger
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Sam Baker Clara Ritger
Oct. 30, 2013, 2:22 p.m.

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.

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