Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faces a devastating glitch in her credibility and her career, after the atrociousrollout of the Obamacare online insurance exchanges.
Last night NBC News reported the White House plans to push back the deadline requiring Americans to purchase health insurance by as much as six weeks, as experts scramble to fix the failed technology.
But Sebelius is likely to keep her job for the time being even as she becomes the primary target of congressional Republicans. Several GOP lawmakers—including Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan—are calling for her dismissal. The health insurance website that was developed over three-and-a-half years under her watch has repeatedly crashed since its launch this month.
The administration refuses to provide any data as to how many Americans have signed up for the newly provided coverage, while touting 19 million visits to the remarkably fragile site that has cost over $500 million to build.
Wisconsin Rep. Ryan told ABC News that he would ask Sebelius—the former governor of Kansas—to step down “if I ever saw her in person.” The situation is so grim that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is reportedly prepping a bill to delay for one year the mandate that Americans buy health coverage.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jay Carney has emphasized that Sebelius continues to have the confidence of President Obama, even though the administration claims it did not understand the full extent of the problems.
“We did not know until the problems manifested themselves after the launch that they would be as significant as they turned out to be,” Carney said on Wednesday. “The administration did not expect the scale of problems that we have seen.”
Sebelius refused to address head-on any speculation about her resigning, telling CNN that her conversations with President Obama have been about fixing the site with help from a SWAT team of tech experts.
“What I talked about is doing the job that I came here to do,” she said. “This is the most important work I’ve ever done in my life.”
However, Sebelius will delay any contentious trips to Capitol Hill until an Oct. 30 hearing. In the meantime, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce will grill four of the private contractors on Thursday, most notably CGI Federal, that developed the site, with an eye toward exposing the cabinet secretary as having misled the public about the turmoil in setting up the sites.
The background memo on the hearing highlights a June report by the Government Accountability Office that found the exchange would likely struggle to assess eligibility, manage enrollment, and provide consumer assistance. It further notes: “HHS officials repeatedly assured the public that implementation was progressing on time and as intended. In July, Secretary Sebelius stated HHS was ‘on track to flip the switch on October 1 and say to people, ‘Come on and sign up.’”
When announcing the hearing, committee chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) concluded, “Either the administration was not ready for launch, or it was not up to the job.”
In her own comments to CNN this week, Sebelius indicated that Obama did not know of the extent of the difficulties, saying that it was more important to offer insurance coverage as soon as possible than perfect the Web site.
“I was optimistic that things would go smoothly,” she said of the fateful day on Oct. 1, despite previous testing that a few hundred visitors caused the site to crash, a sign that the volume of people going to the exchange did not fully explain the delays that resulted.
The cabinet secretary has continued to draw fire from Republicans such as Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson, who told Fox News, “It’s not rocket science but an implementation of this size and magnitude takes a great deal of discipline and it’s very, very clear the administration has not exercised that kind of discipline.”
Yet the administration seems unlikely to let Sebelius go. For starters, it has stood by previous cabinet officers such as Attorney General Eric Holder who stumbled into scandal with the failed “fast and furious” plan that put guns in the hands of Mexican drug gang. And then, the confirmation process for a replacement at Health and Human Services could become a bloodbath, so it’s safer to keep Sebelius in her post.
When past administrations have dismissed top officials, it often comes from internal party pressures. Democratic congressmen have yet to call for Sebelius’ dismissal, even as they grapple with how to improve the site.
“One of the responsibilities of Congress is to hold people accountable, but what’s more important is to get the system working,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY).
Perhaps the biggest sign of all is that Sebelius has already effectively been usurped. When the White House fires a top official, it usually moves quickly to appoint the political equivalent of a relief pitcher to mop up the situation.
The administration has announced that former acting budget director Jeff Zients will begin advising the department, before segueing into being the director of the White House’s National Economic Council. Before joining the election, Zients worked as a business consultant as the chairman and CEO of the Advisory Board Co. and as chairman of the Corporate Executive Board. When Carney discussed the decision to bring in Zients, he said nothing about Sebelius’ status.
“As those of you know who know Jeff, he’s an expert in the field of effective management,” Carney said on Tuesday. “And HHS will be tapping his experience and expertise as they address the challenges that have come up with the administration of the website.”