WASHINGTON – In her first appearance before Congress since the botched debut of the federal health care website, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday apologized for the “debacle,” accepted responsibility and promised the technical problems could be fixed.
Sebelius acknowledged that enrolling in insurance plans through the federal government’s online marketplace was a “miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans” – an observation Republicans repeatedly underscored by pointing to a screen that showed in real time that the website, healthcare.gov, had gone down.
“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch,” she told the House Energy and Commerce Committee, becoming the second administration official to testify before Congress on the issue. “So let me say directly to these Americans, you deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems. And I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.”
In 3 1/2 hours of testimony, Sebelius endured an intense grilling from Republican critics but tried to spotlight what she argued were the overlooked successes of the health care law.
“Millions of Americans are clearly eager to learn about their options and to finally achieve health care security made possible by the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “And my commitment is to deliver on that promise.”
Sebelius, a popular second-term Kansas governor when President Barack Obama tapped her to run the department and oversee his planned health care overhaul, is in the eye of a maelstrom that has undermined confidence in the administration and given new ammunition to GOP critics of his biggest domestic achievement.
“Americans were assured that their experience would be similar to other online transactions, like purchasing a flight or ordering a pizza,” said committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. “But after more than three years to prepare, malfunctions have become the norm.”
The administration has promised that the website will be fixed by the end of November. Upton said Sebelius had agreed to testify again in the first week of December.
Sebelius also said she did not support delaying a tax penalty for Americans who did not have health insurance next year, as many lawmakers, including Democrats, have called for. “We’re still at the beginning of a six-month open enrollment, which extends through the end of March. And there’s plenty of time to sign up,” she said.
The technical problems that have marred the rollout of a crucial feature of the health care law were a recurring theme of the House hearing. But Sebelius argued that, despite major issues, the website had never crashed. “It is functional, but at a very slow speed and very low reliability,” she said.
Sebelius told the committee the administration lacked “reliable data” on how many Americans had enrolled in new plans so far. She speculated that, because of the “flawed launch,” it probably would be “a very small number.”
Insurance companies have reported receiving inadequate or confusing information, which Sebelius said was one of the “priority fixes” now being made. Sebelius said she intended to release “confirmed data” on a monthly basis beginning next month. “The system isn’t functioning, so we are not getting that reliable data,” she said.