Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius walked the plank today in a congressional hearing, accepting responsibility for the failure of the Obamacare website while assuring the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “a new day has finally come” thanks to the controversial law.
Republican questioners took a variety of tacks with Sebelius. Committee Chairman Fred Upton started out immediately accusing Sebelius and HHS of failing to live up to the president’s promise that people who liked their current health care plan could keep it. He lambasted the failed website—“Even this morning when we tried to view the website, we were hit with an error message." The website remained spotty throughout the duration of the hearing, and CNN made sure to capitalize on it.
Ranking Member Henry Waxman used his opening statements to praise Obamacare and decry insurance companies. But some of his colleagues, such as Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado and Congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa, asked legitimate questions about enrollment penalities and the security of the website.
Security concerns and personal information were recurring themes during the hearing. Sebelius pointed out that there are no personal health records stored on the site—due to guaranteed issue— but questioning suggests that financial information is still at risk. Midway through the hearing, the AP broke a story indicating that the Obama administration has been very concerned about the high security risk posed by the website.
Sebelius had to play defense half of the time, with assists from Waxman, but often she seemed chapfallen and not able to provide answers. Admitting that she approved a letter to the GAO before the website launch indicating that she was extremely confident it would proceed smoothly, she seemed prepared to accept blame when applicable, at one point saying, “Hold me accountable for this debacle.” One question was on Jeffrey Zients, who Obama has appointed as “glitch czar” for the ACA rollout. Congressman Michael Burgess of Texas wondered about former OMB director Zients’ relationship with failed energy company Solyndra, at which point Waxman denied any such connection.
On the shift of many employees from full- to part-time employment, which many employers have claimed is due to the implementation of the ACA, Sebelius said that she did not believe there was any evidence that this could be blamed on the health care law. Waxman, in his role as male cheerleader for the Democratic half the committee, agreed with this sentiment.
The good news, according to Sebelius, is that the website is functional, though “at a very low speed, and a very low reliability.” And there have been some successes, she says—the Spanish version of the website was working in September! The bad news is that the secretary is not prepared to offer hardship exemptions for people who have lost their coverage. She offered her best Sinead O'Connor impression as she decried the millions of Americans who will not get affordable care because certain states will not be expanding Medicaid. She talked about how she wasn’t prepared to pay the contractors who worked on Healthcare.gov for work that was not complete—a sensible policy in comparison with the many federal employees who were paid for their time off during the recent shutdown.
Sebelius thinks that everything will be working by November 30, but when questioned about whether she would be willing to return to the committee if the website isn’t fully operational, she promised she’d come back. Also, when asked about additional expenses that might be incurred in fixing the website, she promised that HHS "will monitor every dime [they] spend from here on in." It's too bad they weren't doing that before.