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 Healthcare.gov website.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Oct. 30, 2013, 5:37 a.m.

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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 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.

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. Health­Care.gov, 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 Health­Care.gov 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 Health­Care.gov 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.

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Matt Berman and Sam Baker contributed to this article.
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