President Obama’s top health official admitted to Congress on Wednesday that Obamacare’s main website faces a litany of problems, including the delivery of inaccurate data to insurers and glitches that do not allow uninsured Americans to enroll, resulting in a “miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, under oath, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee she stands by the Affordable Care Act but cannot release reliable enrollment figures from state-run and federally facilitated health insurance markets around the country until November.
In a tense back-and-forth with GOP lawmakers, she said she herself will not use Obamacare because she has employer-based coverage from the federal government.
“I would gladly join the exchange if I didn’t have affordable coverage in my workplace,” she testified.
Mrs. Sebelius also offered a stark mea culpa for the problems at HealthCare.gov, the federal website that processes many requests for coverage.
“Hold me accountable for the debacle, I’m responsible,” she said.
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Even as she apologized and tried to promote the law, a message on HealthCare.gov said the system was down.
“It’s been down the whole time you’ve been testifying,” said Rep. Pete Olson, Texas Republican, said, holding up an iPad.
The hearing produced some theater, such as when a Texas congressman told Mrs. Sebelius, a former governor, they weren’t “in Kansas anymore” — kicking off a recurring string of Wizard of Oz metaphors.
Calls for Mrs. Sebelius to resign took a backseat to complaints about who knew what, and when, about the flawed website and stories of constituents back home who’ve lost their plans and may face higher premiums.
One Republican lawmaker tried to link responsibility for the flaws directly to Mr. Obama, while another called for the resignation of one of Mrs. Sebelius’ deputies, Gary Cohen, who oversees the agency’s Center for Consumer Information & Insurance Oversight.
Mrs. Sebelius’ much-anticipated testimony follows that of Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, before the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday. Ms. Tavenner also apologized for the website’s problems, yet defended the overall law.
The pair’s testimony laid some of the blame for the website’s problems on a lead contractor, yet vendors who worked on the project said the Obama administration did not test the system “end to end” until days before its Oct. 1 launch.
Mrs. Sebelius said too many people are set on fixing blame.
“What I want to do is fix the problem,” she said.
But several GOP lawmakers have called for Mrs. Sebelius’ resignation, and website problems have been eclipsed this week by concerns that many Americans in the individual market will not be able to keep their existing health plans, as Mr. Obama had promised.
Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, said Mr. Obama’s vow has been cast into doubt by a flood of cancellation notices nationwide.
Mrs. Sebelius said if a plan was in place in 2010, when Congress passed the law, then it could have been grandfathered in.
She reminded lawmakers that the individual market covers a small percentage of Americans — many are covered by their employers or by programs such as Medicare — and that some consumers will gain a better health plan at similar or lower cost, through the help of government subsidies.
She also said Americans who were dropped from their current plan must be offered an alternative plan.
Mr. Upton said Americans are “scared” and “frustrated” with the situation, since many of these people cannot use the Obamacare websites to explore their options — mere weeks after Mrs. Sebelius and her lieutenants assured lawmakers the federal exchange system was ready to launch.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, told Mrs. Sebelius, “you’re taking away their choice.”
“I will remind you,” she said, “some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal-stem” glass.