The Obama administration’s top health care official apologized Wednesday for the the “flawed launch” of the federal government’s new health insurance website but said it would be working in time for millions of Americans to buy new insurance for 2014.
“Access to Healthcare.gov has been a miserably frustrating experience for many Americans,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said during a morning hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for these problems and I’m committed to earning your trust back.”
The website is part of the Affordable Care Act’s plan to greatly expand health insurance coverage, and is expected to handle new insurance enrollment for millions of Americans in more than 30 states. But since Healthcare.gov’s Oct. 1 launch, the site has been hobbled by crashes and slow response times, drawing heavy criticism from Republican opponents of President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
The hearing was the first chance for Republicans, some of whom have called for Sebelius to resign, to directly question the woman charged with implementing the health insurance plan. Sebelius said that “clearly” not enough testing was done on the site before its launch, but said it is already improving and reiterated the administration’s pledge that it will be working properly by the end of November.
“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,” said Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, who chairs the committee. “But something happened along the way — either those officials did not know how bad the situation was, or they did not disclose it.”
In a heated exchange, Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn asked to know exactly who is responsible for the site’s problems. “Hold me responsible for the debacle,” Sebelius said. “I’m responsible.”
Republican lawmakers also highlighted reports that some insurance plans are being cancelled because they don’t meet new regulations, in seeming violation of Obama’s frequent pledge that “no one will take away” Americans’ insurance if consumers like it. Sebelius said affordable, quality health insurance will be available on the exchange once the website is working. Some Republicans also noted that the site was down again late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning.
Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers called testing of the site’s security “completely unacceptable.”
“Amazon wouldn’t do this,” Rogers said.
Democrats accused Republicans of rooting for the law to fail.
Sebelius said Republican opposition to the law is making it harder for consumers to get information they need to sign up for the new benefits.
“This is the law, this is no longer a debate,” she said. “It was passed by both chambers of Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the Supreme Court, the president was reelected.”
Asked about payments to contractors who worked on the website, Sebelius said the government “will not pay for something that isn’t complete.”
On Tuesday, Sebelius’s deputy in implementing the law appeared before a different House committee and also apologized for the bungled roll-out of Healthcare.gov. Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, indicated that top officials were surprised the site did not function as planned, saying of pre-launch testing, “we were comfortable with its performance.”
Asked about a report that one contractor warned there was not enough time for adequate testing, Sebelius said Wednesday that contractors did not ask to delay the website launch.