Health Care

Sebelius to Congress: ‘Hold Me Accountable’ for Health Care Website

The secretary of Health and Human Services takes responsibility for fixing the glitch-ridden health care website in her testimony before a House committee Wednesday morning.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday about the troubled launch of the website.
National Journal
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Marina Koren
Oct. 30, 2013, 5:37 a.m.

Seconds after Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us was sworn in for testi­mony at a hear­ing Wed­nes­day morn­ing, she reached for the mi­cro­phone.

“You gotta use that mic,” Rep. Fred Up­ton, R-Mich., chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, told her. “You don’t know how many people want to hear you this morn­ing.”

In her long-awaited re­marks on the Af­ford­able Care Act web­site’s rocky rol­lout, Se­beli­us apo­lo­gized to the mil­lions of un­in­sured Amer­ic­ans who en­countered nu­mer­ous er­ror mes­sages while try­ing to sign up for health plans through Health­Care.Gov.

“I am as frus­trated and angry as any­one with the flawed launch of Health­Care.Gov,” she said. “You de­serve bet­ter. I apo­lo­gize. I’m ac­count­able to you for fix­ing this prob­lem, and I’m com­mit­ted to earn­ing your con­fid­ence back by fix­ing the site.”

The sec­ret­ary ran through a list of im­prove­ments her de­part­ment has made in the weeks since the web­site launched Oct. 1, in­clud­ing more IT staffers and a new gen­er­al con­tract­or to identi­fy and man­age glitches. The web­site can now pro­cess up to 17,000 re­gis­tra­tion ac­counts per hour, she said.

Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn, R-Tenn., pressed Se­beli­us to ex­plain who was re­spons­ible “for this de­bacle.” Se­beli­us named Michelle Snyder, chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer of the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices, but did not say she was ac­count­able. “Hold me ac­count­able for the de­bacle,” she said. “I’m re­spons­ible.”

Later, Rep. Greg Harp­er, R-Miss., asked Se­beli­us wheth­er Pres­id­ent Obama is “ul­ti­mately re­spons­ible” for the faulty web­site rol­lout. Be­cause Se­beli­us re­ports to the pres­id­ent and be­cause he over­sees gov­ern­ment agen­cies like HHS, the buck stops with Obama, the con­gress­man said. “No, sir, we are re­spons­ible for the rol­lout,” said Se­beli­us, re­peat­ing sev­er­al times that the pres­id­ent is not to blame.

Se­beli­us said the web­site will be fully func­tion­al by the end of Novem­ber. “It isn’t fair to ask the Amer­ic­an pub­lic to take our word for it,” she said of the dead­line. “I’ve got to fix this prob­lem, and we are un­der­way do­ing that.”

Se­beli­us said neither CGI Fed­er­al, the web­site con­tract­ors, nor seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials asked her to delay the web­site’s launch date. Doc­u­ments re­leased by the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee on Tues­day night show the com­pany warned ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials about po­ten­tial prob­lems with the site. But warn­ing or no warn­ing, when Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., asked the sec­ret­ary if she be­lieves the two weeks of site test­ing be­fore Oct. 1 was “enough time,” Se­beli­us re­spon­ded, “Clearly not.” She ad­ded, “I don’t think any­one ever es­tim­ated the de­gree to which we’ve had prob­lems.”

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 Health­

HHS has said it will provide en­roll­ment in­form­a­tion in Novem­ber.

“I think there is no ques­tion that giv­en our flawed launch of Health­, it will be a very small num­ber,” Se­beli­us said.

Rep. Mike Ro­gers, chair­man of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, tried quizz­ing Se­beli­us on the web­site’s se­cur­ity. It didn’t go too well. Has each piece of code been tested for se­cur­ity? “I don’t know,” said Se­beli­us. Have there been end-to-end se­cur­ity tests since the site launched? “I will find out what test­ing they’re do­ing,” Se­beli­us re­spon­ded.

The Re­pub­lic­an from Michigan was, pre­dict­ably, un­im­pressed. “Amazon would nev­er do this,” he said. “This is com­pletely an un­ac­cept­able level of se­cur­ity.”

A Septem­ber in­tern­al gov­ern­ment memo to CMS Ad­min­is­trat­or Marylin Taven­ner, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted Wed­nes­day morn­ing, sug­gests House mem­bers are not the only ones con­cerned about the health care site’s se­cur­ity. A lack of test­ing be­fore the launch “ex­posed a level of un­cer­tainty that can be deemed as a high risk,” the note read. 

Throughout the hear­ing, sev­er­al Demo­crats began their ad­dresses to Se­beli­us with re­marks aimed at the Re­pub­lic­ans in the room. “You love what’s wrong with the web­site, and you de­test what’s work­ing in the Af­ford­able Care Act, and I think that that is on full dis­play here,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Cal­if. Later, Rep. G.K. But­ter­field, D-N.C., said, “My Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues do not want this web­site to work. I am con­vinced of that.”

Some of those Re­pub­lic­ans asked Se­beli­us why she her­self was not en­rolling in the fed­er­al health in­sur­ance mar­ket­place. The sec­ret­ary said that be­cause she has in­sur­ance through her fed­er­al em­ploy­ee, it would be “il­leg­al” for her to en­roll in the mar­ket­place. Health­, however, sug­gests that’s not the case. People who have a job-based plan do not need to switch to the mar­ket­place to avoid the 2014 pen­alty aimed at the un­in­sured, but they can choose a plan through the mar­ket­place. Se­beli­us said that if she were eli­gible for the fed­er­al ex­change, she would “take a look at it.” 

Rep. Mi­chael Bur­gess, R-Texas, pushed Se­beli­us on sev­er­al fronts. After sug­gest­ing that Health­ was hacked last week, and that it really shouldn’t be so dif­fi­cult for HHS to get tele­phone en­roll­ment data, the con­gress­man got per­son­al.

First, he went after Jeff Zi­ents, who was en­lis­ted by the White House to help get Health­ run­ning prop­erly. Or, as Bur­gess called him, the “glitch czar.” Bur­gress went after Zi­ents for his in­volve­ment with Solyn­dra, and tried to get Se­beli­us to com­mit to mak­ing him avail­able to the com­mit­tee. Se­beli­us re­spon­ded that the con­gress­man will have to take that up with Zi­ents, but that she is “thrilled that he is will­ing to take on this as­sign­ment.” From there, Bur­gess ex­pli­citly asked if Se­beli­us would re­quest the resig­na­tion of CMS Deputy Ad­min­is­trat­or Gary Co­hen. She will not.

While Se­beli­us took the blame for the health care’s faulty rol­lout, it’s un­likely Obama will ask for her resig­na­tion. Se­beli­us will re­turn to give an up­date to the com­mit­tee in Decem­ber, bring­ing with her con­crete num­bers for en­roll­ment in the Af­ford­able Care Act, which she said will be­come avail­able mid-Novem­ber.

Contributions by Sam Baker and Matt Berman

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