Sebelius on the hot seat again over health care website

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on health insurance exchanges on November 6, 2013 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on health insurance exchanges on November 6, 2013 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. MCT

After a longtime family friend repeated his call for her resignation during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius warned of “very low” numbers when enrollment figures for the troubled website are released next week

“Until the site is fully improved and we really kind of open up the doors wide to a lot of people, we’re going to have, I think, a struggle getting significant numbers to sign up,” she testified at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee.

The news was hardly a shock, considering the vast problems with the website. But weak early signup figures will make it harder to achieve the administration’s goal of enrolling 7 million people in coverage by March 31, 2014.

The scant numbers also will provide fresh ammunition for congressional Republicans determined to have the Affordable Care Act repealed or its main provisions rolled back. On Tuesday, Medicare Administrator Marilyn Tavenner told another Senate committee that HHS expected 800,000 people to get coverage nationwide by the end of November on the state-run marketplaces and, the portal for the federal marketplace that serves 36 states.

Sebelius said she expected “more robust numbers” in November and December, but she didn’t provide estimates.

Wednesday’s hearing again featured complaints from Republican and Democratic senators about the rosy picture that Sebelius, her staff and private contractors painted during earlier testimony about their work leading up to the botched website launch.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., called the updates “totally unsatisfactory” and warned Sebelius, “You’ve got to tell us what’s working and what’s not. . . . The more you don’t tell us, the greater the problems.”

Ranking minority member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was blunt: “No more caveats. No more excuses. No more spin. Just give us the truth.”

But it was Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas who created the biggest stir.

Roberts, who voted to confirm Sebelius in 2009, served as an aide to her father-in-law, Keith Sebelius, a former Republican congressman from Kansas. They have been friends for years. But Roberts was the first member of Congress to call for her job after the website began having problems on its Oct. 1 signup launch.

In a five-minute statement Wednesday, Roberts accused Sebelius of failing to delay the flawed website’s debut for political reasons.

“I believe you were given advice, counsel and warning from experts inside your agency and out, that the health care exchanges were not going to be ready,” he said, as Sebelius looked directly at him as he read his critique. “Furthermore, I believe, to protect the (Obama) administration, you chose to ignore these warnings.”

He later used Sebelius’ own words against her.

“You have said America should hold you accountable, which is why today, madame secretary, I repeat my request for you to resign,” Roberts said.

Sebelius remained impassive.

After the health secretary refused to comment on the veracity of Obama’s disputed claims that the Affordable Care Act allows people to keep their current insurance if they want to, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, angrily said, “It’s impossible to do something in this administration that gets you fired. It’s impossible. You can lie to the American people. You can consistently misrepresent the facts, but it’s impossible to get fired.”

Calling the site’s problems a “miserably frustrating experience,” Sebelius took full blame for the problems, as she did last week in a similar hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“It’s unacceptable,” Sebelius said of the problems. “I am focused on fixing it. And I am accountable.”

But she said delaying implementation is not the answer, as suggested by congressional critics and even Baucus.

“For millions of Americans, ‘delay’ is not an option,” she said. “People’s lives depend on this. Too many hardworking people have been waiting too long for the ability to obtain affordable health insurance.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Sebelius to be sure to hold the website contractors accountable for the problems.

“I want you to burn their fingers and make them pay for not being responsible and producing a product that all of us could be proud (of),” Nelson said.

Baucus was the first lawmaker to call the rollout a “train wreck,” but he said his statement has been “twisted and used to malign” the health law, which he supports. Still, he wondered, “Why not shut (the website) down and do it right?”

“We’ve been advised that that actually doesn’t help, that it’s better” to repair the site piecemeal when the system is up and working, Sebelius testified.

Under questioning from Cornyn, Sebelius said that it was possible that convicted felons could serve as “navigators” – trained personnel who help guide consumers through the signup process – and gain access to their personal financial information. Sebelius said the organizations that employ navigators take responsibility for their background screening, and that states could require criminal background checks if they chose to.

She said federal navigator guidelines mirror requirements for licensed insurance agents, but she’d be willing to look at requiring criminal background checks for people working as navigators.

At the White House, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met behind closed doors for two hours Wednesday with Senate Democrats facing re-election next year to reassure them about the troubled website. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration would ramp up outreach to consumers facing policy changes and cancellations and work to protect the privacy and security of consumers enrolling online.

The attendees included Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Coons of Delaware, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Mark Udall of Colorado, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Mark Warner of Virginia and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed.

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