Speaking before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to users of HealthCare.gov for technical problems that occurred when the Affordable Care Act’s website went live this month.
Sebelius was called to testify before the committee after many Republicans — and some Democrats — demanded her resignation for the website’s issues.
Though HealthCare.gov cost $118 million to create, the government has reportedly spent more than $56 million on IT support for the website.
Sebelius took responsibility for the issues, which kept some Americans from accessing the website. She promised that its problems would be fixed by Nov. 30. She added that technical issues that led to frozen screens and error messages are being taken care of daily.
Sebelius’ testimony followed that of Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday. Tavenner was questioned for three hours about Americans who have received policy cancellation notices from their insurance providers.
In addition to responding to questions about the website’s technical issues, Congressional Republicans — who shut down the government earlier this month in an attempt to defund the controversial health care policy — peppered Sebelius with questions about why some of their constituents are paying more for health insurance and why some have been dropped from their insurance.
Many Republicans pointed to a statement President Obama made while addressing the American Medical Association in 2009, when he said:
“No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”
As the legislation was implemented, however, it became clear that some Americans could not keep their policy if it did not meet the standards required by the new law. New standards include a requirement that insurance companies offer covereage regardless of health conditions, and mandating that the companies cover at least 60 percent of medical costs.
“Now we learn that it’s only if the White House likes your insurance you can keep your insurance,’ said Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming. And if the White House doesn’t like your insurance, you can no longer keep your insurance.”
But according to White House press secretary Jay Carney, only 5 percent of Americans are affected by this change. He criticized the media for overstating the effect. “In some of the coverage of this issue in the last several days,” Carney said, “You would think that you were talking about 75 percent or 80 percent or 60 percent of the American population.”
Sebelius added that historically, many Americans have had insurance companies cancel their policies, and said those who do have to find a new policy will be able to find a better one that meets standards of the Affordable Care Act.
Patrick Geraghty, CEO of insurer Florida Blue, said that there have been misconceptions floating around about his company, and said reports that the company dropped 300,000 people from coverage were false. “We’re not cutting people,” Geraghty said:
“We’re actually transitioning people. What we’ve been doing is informing folks that their plan doesn’t meet the test of the essential health benefits; therefore, they have a choice of many options that we make available through the exchange. And, in fact, with subsidy, many people will be getting better plans at a lesser cost.”
“There is no confidence until we deliver”
During Wednesday’s testimony, members of the committee asked Sebelius one by one about failures of the website. Because Sebelius is from Kansas, some members drew connections with the “Wizard of Oz.”
Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa said that while the movie’s Wizard did do wonderful things, which he compared to the Affordable Care Act’s attempts to lower prices and increase competition among insurance companies. But he said “all of these good things don’t mean anything unless we solve these [technical] problems.”
Sebelius said she had committed to fixing the website’s issues by Dec. 1 — a date she said was determined by experts working on the issues — but recognized “there is no confidence until we deliver.”
When asked if HHS would extend open enrollment by two months to ensure Americans won’t be penalized for a situation that was out of their control, Sebelius said there would not be an extension, since Americans will have four months to fully use the website, a much longer period than other open enrollments.
That answer wasn’t good enough for committee members like Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who presented Sebelius with a slideshow printout from the health care website developer CGI Group. The printout reportedly included concerns about technical issues the group and HHS was aware of since October.
Concerning for Harper, he said, was a slide that said some of the website’s glitches were political in nature, and so needed to be addressed sooner rather than later. But the congressman did not give specifics and Sebelius said she was unable to answer questions about the document since she had never seen it before.
Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, made similar statements and alleged the website had been down throughout Sebelius’ testimony. He too made an Oz reference and said many people have “worked so hard to travel down the yellow brick road,” but when they pulled back the curtain, they “realized they had nothing more than they had before.”
Though there was a lot of negative questions addressed to Sebelius by the committee’s Republican members — and some calling for her resignation — there were also some who were very supportive and understanding that the HHS never imagined the problems with the website would be as large and extensive as they have been.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who thanked Sebelius for, in her words, no longer making being a woman a preexisting condition. Addressing her colleagues, Schakowsky said House members need to end their campaign to repeal and discredit Obamacare. There are problems with the website, she said, but they are all fixable.
Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, made similar comments and scoffed at the extent his Republican colleagues demanded “oversight” over a law they repeatedly tried to repeal.
“I would urge my colleagues to stop hyperventilating,” said Waxman. “The problems with HealthCare.gov are unfortunate and we should investigate them, but they will be fixed. And then every American will have — finally have access to affordable health insurance.”
The Obama administration estimates that more than 700,000 people have created accounts to buy insurance since Oct. 1, but officials have not disclosed how many of those people were able to enroll online. That information is expected to be available by mid-November.
President Obama traveled to Massachusetts on Wednesday to speak about enrollment issues the state encountered when it rolled out its own health care law in 2006.
Obama has been very supportive of Sebelius during calls for her resignation and has launched a campaign to focus on the law’s benefits instead of the technical issues some have encountered.