WASHINGTON – Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius admitted Wednesday that the rollout of the health insurance marketplace under the newly implemented healthcare reform law “has not lived up to the expectations of the American people” and that public confidence in the system popularly known as Obamacare will suffer until the problems are resolved.
Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Sebelius acknowledged that logging on to the HealthCare.gov website – developed to assist consumers in 36 states to evaluate and purchase health insurance – has proved “frustrating for many Americans” and that her agency is committed to solving the problems “as soon as possible.”
The present situation, she said, “is not acceptable.”
“The Affordable Care Act has already provided new benefits and protections to Americans with health insurance and we are committed to improving the experience for consumers using HealthCare.gov so that Americans can easily access the quality, affordable health coverage they need,” Sebelius said. “By enlisting additional technical help, aggressively monitoring errors, testing to prevent new issues from cropping up and regularly deploying fixes to the site, we are working to ensure consumers’ interaction with HealthCare.gov is a positive one, and that the Affordable Care Act fully delivers on its promise.”
Consumers seeking to use the HealthCare.gov website to purchase healthcare — as required under Obamacare — have encountered numerous problems, including the inability to log on to the site, trouble creating accounts, receiving confusing error messages, slow page loads and forms that failed to respond in a timely fashion.
Sebelius attributed the ongoing website issues to private contractors hired by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CSM) to develop the system.
“CMS has a track record of success fullyoverseeing the many contractors our programs depend on to function,” Sebelius said. “Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations. Among other issues, the initial wave of interest stressed the account service, resulting in many consumers experiencing difficulty signing up, while those who were able to sign up sometimes had problems logging in.”
Sebelius said officials were aware that problems could occur.
“No one indicated it could possibly go this wrong,” she said.
Nonetheless, Sebelius apologized and said the problem rests with her.
“Hold me accountable for the debacle,” she said. “I’m responsible.”
Sebelius said the cabinet for Health and Human Services has taken a number of steps that have improved the system since its rocky Oct. 1 launch and the problems should be addressed by the end of November.
“We continue to add more capacity in order to meet demand and execute software fixes to address the sign up and log in issues, stabilizing those parts of the service and allowing us to remove the virtual ‘waiting room,’” Sebelius said. “Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans.”
Regardless, she said, “there is still significant, additional work to be done.” The secretary added that her cabinet does not yet have data indicating the number of individuals who managed to use the website to obtain health insurance. That won’t come until mid-November. Currently, she said, insurers do not have access to the information.
“They (insurers) are not getting reliable data all the way through the systems,” she said. “The system isn’t functioning so we are not getting that reliable data. Insurers who I met with said that is the case.”
Committee Republicans were not reassured by the secretary’s testimony. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the committee chairman, noted that HealthCare.gov was down Tuesday night at 5 p.m. It was also down on Monday and it crashed last weekend.
“And even this morning when we attempted to view the site before this hearing, we were hit with an error message,” Upton said.
Upton said the public is “scared and frustrated” by Obamacare’s failings. He noted that administration officials expressed certainty that everything was on track before the launch.
“But something happened along the way – either those officials did not know how bad the situation was or they did not disclose it,” Upton said. “Sadly, here we are, now five weeks into enrollment, and the news seems to get worse by the day.”
Upton said the problems associated with Obamacare go beyond the website problem.
“Americans were assured their experience would be similar to other online transactions like purchasing a flight or ordering a pizza and that their sensitive personal information would be kept secure,” he said. “But after more than three years to prepare, malfunctions have become the norm and the administration has pivoted from saying they are ‘on track’ to setting a new target date of Nov. 30.”
Even more questions about the system were raised while Sebelius was appearing before the committee. The Washington Post and other media outlets came into possession of internal cabinet for Health and Human Services documents establishing that administration officials were aware of a website issue that placed the privacy of user data at risk. The memo warned that the system had not been sufficiently tested, “exposing a level of uncertainty that can be deemed high risk.”
Sebelius, however, testified that the personal data submitted by consumers is safe. The secretary said there was not a breach but a “theoretical problem” that was “immediately fixed.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) further criticized the administration, noting that “for four years the president told Americans that if they like the health insurance plan they have, they can keep it. The facts today show this is not the case.”
Blackburn said her office receives letters from constituents every day to report that they have been dropped by their health insurance carrier.
“Adding insult to injury, the website to buy one of the president’s plans doesn’t even work,” she said. “For those that are able to get through, many are finding their premiums going up, not down. The botched rollout of this law simply confirms everyone’s worst fears about government run healthcare. If the government can’t figure out how to run a website, how will they be able to figure out how to take care of us?”
Sebelius defended Obama, asserting that he didn’t mislead the public when he vowed that those who liked their health insurance could keep it. Any changes in health insurance policies were made to comply with new coverage requirements that take effect in January. Sebelius said consumers “must be offered new plans” if they are informed about any policy changes and may be eligible to receive federal financial assistance to meet any increased costs.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, expressed confidence in Sebelius and the Affordable Care Act, urging the law’s foes to “stop hyperventilating.”
“The problems with HealthCare.gov are unfortunate and we should investigate them, but they will be fixed,” he said.
No lawmaker on Wednesday called for Sebelius to resign, although several have. The most recent is Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
“Expecting this secretary to be able to fix in a few weeks what she has not been able to fix during the last three and one half years is unrealistic,” Alexander said. “It is throwing good money after bad.”
At some point, Alexander said, there has to be accountability.
“Taxpayers have spent $400 million to create exchanges that, after 3 ½ years, still don’t work,” he said. “No private sector chief executive officer would escape accountability after such a poor performance.”