Sebelius: 'You deserve better'

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for the first time on Wednesday apologized for the botched rollout of the ObamaCare website. [WATCH VIDEO]

Sebelius described the HealthCare.gov user experience as “miserably frustrating.”

“You deserve better,” she said. “I apologize.”

Sebelius is the public face of the bungled ObamaCare rollout, and she has heard calls from dozens of Republican for her to resign.

The secretary has been defiant, saying she works for President Obama and not the GOP.

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But on Wednesday, Sebelius adopted a conciliatory tone. The apology she made was not in the prepared remarks that were posted Tuesday on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s website.

Upon her entrance to the hearing room, Sebelius walked up to the panel and shook hands with many of her critics, including Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who had said Sebelius’s testimony will be her last act as secretary before she’s “out the door.”

“Hold me accountable for the debacle,” she later said under intense questioning from Blackburn. “I’m responsible.”

Members began grilling Sebelius immediately, with committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) accusing her of misleading the public about the ObamaCare launch.

“Over the months leading up to the Oct. 1 launch, the secretary and her colleagues at HHS repeatedly looked us in the eye and testified that everything was on track and despite the numerous red flags and lack of testing they assured us that all systems were a go,” Upton said.

“But something happened along the way," Upton said. "Either those officials did not know how bad the system was, or they did not disclose it. And, sadly, here we are not five weeks into enrollment and the news seems to get worse everyday.”

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) told his Republican colleagues to “stop hyperventilating,” and said “the early glitches in this rollout will soon be forgotten.”
 
Sebelius offered little new in her opening statement, opting instead for a clinical rundown of the problems the site has faced and broad assurances that incremental progress is being achieved.

However, she did push back at the contractors who last week, in front of the same panel, blamed her agency for many of the problems associated with HealthCare.gov. In her opening statement, the secretary said that there was a “subset” of contractors who “have not met expectations.”

She also told the panel that the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) has successfully used private contractors to administer aspects of Medicare in the past, but that some failed in handling the ObamaCare website.

“CMS has a track record of successfully overseeing the many contractors our programs depend on to function,” she said. “Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations.”
 
The contractors denied responsibility for the system's problems and charged that HHS had failed to effectively coordinate the project. They also said that they didn’t have enough time to properly test the site.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released documents late Tuesday from one of the primary ObamaCare contractors that show the company warned government officials that there wasn’t adequate time to test the system before going live.

According to the documents, employees at CGI Federal said in a status report that “due to the compressed schedule, there is not enough time built in to allow for adequate performance testing.”

Lawmakers were able to coax other information out of Sebelius, including an admission that insurance companies are still not consistently receiving clean enrollment data from the federal healthcare exchange.

Jeff Zients, whom Obama brought in to clean up the rollout mess, said in a conference call with reporters last week that the bad data was a bigger issue than the “isolated” incidents the CMS has described. He said it was at the top of his to-do list.

While HHS is under intense pressure to have the website running smoothly by the Nov. 30 deadline set by Zients, Sebelius said she wouldn’t support delaying the individual mandate penalty until the site is fixed.

Some lawmakers say that because potential consumers are having difficulty accessing the site, the penalty for not buying insurance should be delayed past the March 31 deadline.

Updated at 11:18 a.m.