Republicans teed off Wednesday on embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, using her first appearance on Capitol Hill since the disastrous launch of the Obamacare website Oct. 1 to renew their assault on President Obama’s top domestic initiative and accuse Obama of misleading the public.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, quickly set the tone for the long morning of testimony, complaining that Congress was deceived by the administration in the runup to the troubled rollout that has left millions of Americans unable to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
This was the second day in a row House Republicans grilled an administration official over the troubled government website.
“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,” Upton said. “And despite the numerous red flags and lack of testing, they assured us that all systems were a go. But something happened along the way: Either those officials did not know how bad the situation was, or they did not disclose it.”
Upto added: “Americans are scared and frustrated, and this situation should rise above politics."
While the website with its legion of technical problems remains an inviting target for critics – and in fact the system was down again this morning - the growing controversy over whether Obama was deceptive in assuring Americans that they could keep their present health insurance policies if they’re satisfied with them moved to center stage.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) fumed that many of her constituents were being forced to trade in their low-cost individual health insurance plans for more expensive policies that meet new Obamacare standards, despite the president’s repeated assurances.
“I will remind you some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari,” Blackburn told Sebelius. “You are taking away their right.” After their heated exchange, Sebelius said, "Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible."
Sebelius, the main target of GOP fury over the star-crossed rollout of the Obamacare, acknowledged the “frustrating” problems with HealthCare.gov and repeatedly promised they would be fixed no later than the end of November. Echoing the concerns of President Obama, Sebelius told the committee in her opening statement, “I am as frustrated and angry as anyone.”
“You deserve better,” she said. “I apologize. I am accountable to you for fixing these problems, and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.”
As of 2 p.m. today officials and contractors were struggling to restore operation of a large data services Hub that is essential to operating the federal and state insurance exchanges. This is the second time since last weekend that the data router--powered by a unit of Verizon-- has been paralyzed. A spokesman for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the site, said the outage has knocked out Healthcare.gov, and has slowed operation of state-run exchanges.
She bridled when Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) tried to pin ultimate blame for the snafus on President Obama – who she said didn’t learn of the problems until a couple of days after the launch. “Is the president not ultimately responsible, like a company CEO would be?” Harper asked.
“Sir, he’s the president of the United States,” Sebelius replied. “I have given him regular reports and I am responsible for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.”
“While I think it’s great that you’re a team player and you’re taking responsibility, it is the president’s ultimate reponsibility,” Harper replied.
While House Republicans originally called for the hearing to expose the troubled online rollout of Obamacare, some of the steam has gone out of the controversy as the White House and HHS scramble to fix the site's problems. Sebelius and other officials, of course, run the risk of being called back on the carpet by lawmakers if Americans still have trouble logging on or signing up for insurance by the end of November.
As the administration continues to report progress in addressing a “punch list” of problems, Republicans are shifting their focus to complaints that Obamacare may be violating applicants’ privacy and is forcing many individual policy holders to swap their current policies for new and potentially more expensive Obamacare coverage.
More than a half million Americans with private plans from California to Florida have been notified by their insurers that their coverage is being terminated at the end of the year because it doesn’t meet the new, higher standards under the Affordable Care Act, according to Kaiser Health News, and many more may be in the same boat before the year is out.
Overall, there are between 10 million and 12 million people who buy insurance on their own – outside of their jobs – who will see their current policies discontinued as insurers adjust to the new government standards.
Insurers must offer renewal policies that cover such core benefits as maternity care and prescription drug coverage and that don’t penalize people with pre-exisitng health problems. These new, more generous policies in many cases will cost more than the old policies, although many lwould qualify for federal tax subsidies that would bring down the overall cost.
Under questioning from committee Republicans, Sebelius disputed contentions that people are losing health insurance under the new law. If people get notices of cancellation because their existing insurance was not grandfathered in and does not meet minimum standards, “it’s the law that they must get another plan,” Sebelius said. “Continuing coverage is part of the law, and that wasn’t the case in the past.”
This piece was updated at 2:10 p.m.