Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faced a grilling from a Democratic-led Senate panel on Wednesday over the problems plaguing the ObamaCare website.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, kicked off the hearing by chastising the secretary for the bungled rollout of HealthCare.gov, the federal government's malfunctioning online enrollment portal.
Baucus said that the updates Congress received in the run-up to the launch were “totally unacceptable.”
“But that’s in the past and now it’s time to fix it,” he added.
Baucus is one of the primary architects of the Affordable Care Act, but has not shied from speaking out against the rollout. In a radio interview last week, Baucus, who is not seeking reelection next year, called the website “Humpty Dumpty” because officials hadn’t been able to put it back together again.
But on Wednesday, he also bemoaned those conservatives who he says took his words out of context when he referred to the “train wreck” that would result if officials couldn’t fix the problems.
“I believe in this law, I spent two years working on the ACA and there is nothing I want more than for it to succeed,” Baucus said.
While the Democrats on the panel tried to focus on how lawmakers could assist HHS, and on how many of the uninsured are now finding coverage for the first time, they didn’t hide their disdain for the disastrous rollout.
“There is no way to describe the frustration all of us have,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.
In her opening remarks, Sebelius agreed the problems were “unacceptable” and said she should be held accountable.
“Access to HealthCare.gov has been a miserably frustrating experience for too many Americans,” she said. “It’s unacceptable. I am focused on fixing it and I’m accountable.”
She also touted the incremental progress the “tech surge” has produced, ticking off statistics that show improved response times, and fewer error messages and time outs.
Sebelius’s testimony comes a day after the House Oversight Committee released 175 pages of ObamaCare documents that show federal officials and contractors scrambling to get a grip on the myriad tech issues that materialized as the site went live on Oct. 1.
Last month, Sebelius apologized for the botched ObamaCare website rollout in testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but she also passed blame to a “subset” of contractors who “have not met expectations” for the website’s problems.
Baucus pushed Sebelius as to why HHS didn’t just shut down the site and fix it offline. He argued that the site shutdown would be one bad media story, as opposed to a daily drip of startling revelations.
“Why not just get it done right,” he asked. “Would it be helpful to take the whole system down?”
Sebelius said tech experts “did a series of diagnostics, looked at the entire system and decided at the outset that HealthCare.gov is fixable and is not fatally flawed.”
“It’s better to do routine upgrades,” she concluded.
Angry lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have confronted Sebelius, the contractors, and Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) administrator Marilyn Tavenner at a string of congressional hearings over potential security flaws in the system. They have pushed administration officials to explain how the launch of an expensive website that’s been in development for three years could have gone so wrong.
Many of the problems have persisted, although the administration insists that its “tech surge” will have the website running smoothly for most users at the end of the month.
The administration has also faced growing calls to provide enrollment figures, which it has so far refused to disclose, saying the early stages of enrollment make it impossible to provide reliable or accurate data.
On Tuesday, CMS said it will publish Affordable Care Act enrollment data next week, but that didn’t stop House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) from issuing a subpoena to CMS requiring it to turn over all the data the agency has about how many people have enrolled in the healthcare exchanges.
While Democrats vented, Sebelius’s toughest line of questioning came from two Republicans on the committee, Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and John Thune (S.D.), who hammered Sebelius for the administration’s claim that if you like your existing healthcare plan you can keep it.
Cornyn angrily pointed to the White House website, which still makes that claim, and sought to get a true or false answer out of Sebelius about the statement reminding her that it’s a crime to lie to Congress.
Sebelius responded with administration’s explanation that thousands are receiving cancellation notices because insurance companies are changing their coverage, not because of anything required by the Affordable Care Act.
Unhappy with Sebelius’s response, Cornyn thundered that “it’s impossible for someone in this administration to get fired.”
Thune said the American people would be understanding about the confusion if the administration would own up to it, but called it a “dishonest mistake.”
“You’ve been misleading the American people and so has the president,” he said.
Updated at 10:41 a.m. and 12:02 p.m.