U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius refused to give in to calls by lawmakers to fire the government administrators who worked on the Obamacare exchange rollout, saying “hold me accountable for the debacle.”
In a contentious exchange, Republicans at a House committee hearing today quizzed Sebelius on the malfunctioning website that is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. They also raised privacy concerns, pressed her on insurance cancellations and demanded resignations, including of the federal official who oversaw the opening of the website.
“Will you please ask for the resignation of Gary Cohen, because he has repeatedly come to this committee and misled us?” asked Representative Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Sebelius replied: “I will not, sir.”
Sebelius also defended Michelle Snyder, the chief operations officer for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who was in charge of building the healthcare.gov website. Sebelius said she, not Snyder, was to blame and apologized for the site’s flaws as her agency works to achieve “an optimally functioning” exchange by the end of November.
The chairman of the committee, Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, declined to ask Sebelius to resign herself, saying it was up to the president.
“I had the opportunity to work at the White House myself as a political appointee,” Upton told reporters after the hearing. “I served every day at the pleasure of the president. And I knew that if he had the decision, if I didn’t do my job, I was probably not going to be there.”
President Barack Obama “has complete confidence in Secretary Sebelius,” Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with the president to Boston.
Sebelius said that despite the failures, there are no plans to extend the sixth-month enrollment period beyond March 31 for health plans sold on the exchange. She also said the government may not be able to penalize the contractors that helped design healthcare.gov, which included CGI Group Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc.
“There isn’t a built-in penalty but I can tell you that paying for work that isn’t complete is not something that we will do,” Sebelius said.
Since opening Oct. 1, the federal online marketplace serving 36 states has been plagued by delays, error messages and hang-ups that have prevented customers from completing applications. While Sebelius declined to provide the number of sign-ups, she said initial enrollment is going to be low.
“There’s no question that given our flawed launch of healthcare.gov it will be a very small number,” she said.
Cohen, the director of the U.S. Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, and other Obama administration officials had said in late September that the federal exchange would be up and running on Oct. 1.
“I told the president that we were ready to go,” Sebelius said. “No one ever imagined the volume of issues that we have, and we must fix it.”
The website has been hobbled by software errors and overwhelmed by higher-than-anticipated consumer demand. A few days ago, the data hub that routes tax information to sites run by the federal government and 14 states lost connectivity after workers tried to replace a broken networking component.
Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator for Medicare and Medicaid agency, appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday and blamed outside contractors for the website woes, though she apologized to Americans for the exchange’s flaws. Tavenner’s agency is part of the Health and Human Services Department run by Sebelius.
Units of CGI and UnitedHealth told the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week that a branch of the health agency was responsible for the end-to-end testing of the site that should have been done months earlier. The government conducted final tests just days before the site went public, while similar projects are tested for months, the contractors said.
A Sept. 27 memo to Tavenner from her deputies showed that just days before the site went live, security certification “was only partly completed.” Sebelius said “mitigation strategies” are “under way right now.”
Sebelius and Tavenner are scheduled to appear before Senate committees next week for more questioning.
More than 30 House Republicans and at least three U.S. senators are asking for Sebelius to step down. They include Senators Pat Roberts of Kansas and John Barrasso of Wyoming, as well as Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012 whose losing campaign promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act if elected.
“The bottom line is the problems with Obamacare run deeper than just the website,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said yesterday at a news conference.
Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for HHS, said many of those calling for Sebelius to quit have long opposed the Affordable Care Act.
“There has been a longstanding political opposition to the law by some, despite the benefits it is delivering to millions of Americans,” Peters said in an e-mail. Sebelius “is committed to getting this right and ensuring that healthcare.gov is working smoothly.”
No Democrat has publicly questioned Sebelius’s leadership despite the exchange being plagued by delays and error messages.
Tavenner said yesterday that enrollment numbers for the main site would be released in mid-November and the delayed Spanish-language and small-business versions of the exchange would be online by the end of November.
Obama last week appointed Jeffrey Zients, his incoming chief economic adviser, to advise the health department on fixes to the system before taking on his other job. The federal website, which Zients declared “fixable,” serves consumers in 36 states, including Texas and Florida. He said the site should be running smoothly by the end of November.
That would mean two months when the consumer website at the heart of the $1.4 trillion U.S. health-care overhaul won’t be fully operating.
“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of healthcare.gov,” Sebelius told the committee today. “Let me say directly to these Americans: you deserve better. I apologize.”