House committee grills Sebelius on Obamacare implementation, website problems

Kathleen Sebelius

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee got their chance to ask embattled Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the disastrous rollout of the federal Obamacare exchange website, Healthcare.gov, and other issues that have arisen in recent days with the law.

“The Energy and Commerce Committee welcomes the President’s point person on healthcare, Secretary Sebelius, as part of our continuing oversight of the healthcare law and we look forward to a thoughtful conversation on a number of issues, including transparency and fairness,” said Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) in his prepared opening remarks.

Upton laid out some of the “red flags” that some saw regarding the administration’s implementation efforts and alleged that they had been members looking into the matter had been mislead by officials.

“Sadly, here we are five weeks into enrollment, and the news seems to get worse by the day,” he said. “Healthcare.gov was down [on] Tuesday at five o’clock, it was also down on Monday, and it crashed last weekend. And even this morning, when we attempted to view the site before the hearing, we were hit with an error message.”

Sebelius defended the law as a means provide coverage to Americans who are uninsured and underinsured. She also apologized for the problems with the website, which have been a headache for the Obama Administration, and accepted responsibility for launching what she called a “flawed” website.

“In these early weeks, access to Healthcare.gov has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans, including many who have waited years, in some cases their entire lives, for the security of health insurance,” Sebelius told the committee in her prepared remarks. “I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of Healthcare.gov

“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,” she said, adding that HHS had already began its efforts to deal with this now infamous disaster.

It was a frustrating hearing for Sebelius, who was unable to hide her frustration with grilling she received from Republican committee members. She guaranteed members that the website would be fully functional by November 30.

She also confirmed to Vice Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that the cost of the federal exchange website was $118 million. HHS spent another $56 million on “other IT to support the website,” she added.

Sebelius contested that the website had crashed, a point that was frequently mentioned by Republican committee members during the hearing. “We were anxious to get the website up and running and functional, which we clearly have failed to do,” she told Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA). “Although I would suggest the website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and low reliability.”

That may depend on the definition of “crashed,” but that’s a distinction without a difference. While the site was live, it definitely wasn’t functioning, which renders it completely useless. This is what users saw when they visited the site yesterday morning:

Healthcare.gov error message

She was also grilled on mandated coverage that Americans are now being forced to pay for, even if they don’t need it. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) cited maternity coverage as an example.

“As far as [Obamacare’s] Essential Health Benefits, correct me if I’m wrong: do men not have to buy maternity care?” Ellmers asked Sebelius.

“Policies will cover maternity coverage. For the young and healthy under 30-year-olds will have a choice also of a catastrophic plan that has no maternity coverage,” Sebelius replied. But Ellmers pressed her on this point, noting that “men are required to purchase maternity coverage” under Obamacare’s mandates.

After some back and forth, Sebelius said, “The individual policies cover families. Men often do need maternity care for their spouses and for their families, yes.”

“A single male, aged 32, does not need maternity coverage. To the best of your knowledge, has a man ever delivered a baby?” Ellmers sarcastically asked Sebelius, a question that drew some laughter from members of the committee and audience.

Another interesting line of questioning came near the end of the hearing from Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who recently lost his health insurance coverage because it was deemed inadequate under Obamacare and will be forced to buy a more expensive plan.

He asked Sebelius why she wasn’t participating in the insurance exchanges. The HHS Secretary replied that she has coverage through the federal government, like most federal employees.

“Why will you not agree to go into the exchange?” Gardner asked Sebelius after some wrangling and attempts at deflect the question.

“I am not eligible for the exchange,” declared Sebelius, later adding that it would be “illegal” for her to do so. But that’s not true, as Gardner noted. She has the choice to opt into the exchange, though she wouldn’t be eligible for subsidies because her employer, the federal government, offers coverage.

The Washington Post also confirmed this, though, as a Medicare Part A subscriber, it wouldn’t be to her advantage. Sebelius didn’t explain that she had enrolled in Medicare during the line of questioning.

Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) followed up on Gardner’s questioning on the issue. That’s when Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) cut in with a unanimous consent request to get her answer “for the record.” Sebelius was overheard saying, “Don’t do this to me,” as Waxman began his request.

In all, the hearing wasn’t a good one for Sebelius, who has proven herself to be not just an incompetent bureaucrat, but also a poor spokesperson for the Obama Administration when it comes to clearly explaining the law.


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