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.