Apologies then excuses

Healthcare | Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius goes before lawmakers to defend Obamacare
by Edward Lee Pitts
Posted 10/30/13, 07:30 pm

WASHINGTON—Calling the launch of Obamacare a debacle, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday told Congress she is responsible and should be held accountable for the new healthcare law’s laundry list of problems.

Sebelius, the highest-ranking Obama administration official to testify before lawmakers since Obamacare’s error-filled birth, spent three-and-a-half mostly contentious hours before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The HHS secretary acknowledged that the program’s website—which President Barack Obama on Oct. 1 said would be as easy to use as buying TVs on Amazon.com and airline tickets on Kayak—“has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans.”

Sebelius added, “So let me say directly to these Americans, you deserve better. I apologize.”

She claimed “no one indicated it could possibly go this wrong” but admitted the testing of the website was far from adequate. Sebelius promised that the problems would be fixed by Nov. 30, but at the same time she acknowledged, “There’s no confidence in that date until we deliver on that.”

Once the apologies had been dispensed with, Sebelius spent the rest of the hearing trying to defend the website, refusing to say if it has security problems, and providing answers that showed a lack of understanding of the law she is charged with implementing.

Sebelius attempted to convince House lawmakers that the website “has never crashed,” explaining, “It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability.”

But during periods of the televised hearing, networks showed split-screen images of Sebelius testifying and the Obamacare website displaying “system down” messages.

Beyond Sebelius’ awkward insistence that the Obamacare site was just slow during the very moment it was down, few lawmakers at the hearing from either party tried to argue that the website was not causing major problems and headaches.

But criticism about Obamacare goes beyond its web portal. As many as 10 million Americans may have their healthcare insurance canceled by insurance companies despite Obama’s promise, repeatedly stated in 2009, that if you like your insurance plan you can keep it. Those people are getting more than termination notices; they also are finding out that government-approved replacement polices come with hefty price tags.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell read a letter from one of his constituents in Kentucky who is suffering from healthcare sticker shock. Her current $653 monthly premium will rise to more than $1,100 next year.

“My husband and I work hard, pay a lot in taxes, and ask for little from our government,” said the letter read by McConnell. “Is it asking too much for government to stay out of my health insurance?”

McConnell said his constituent is not alone: Roughly one-half of the 600,000 people in Kentucky’s private insurance market will have their current insurance plans discontinued by the end of next year. 

Back at the House hearing, Sebelius seemed to greet questions about these cancellation notices with a flippant shoulder shrug. She admitted such terminations were due to Obamacare but insisted that those customers will find better policies with more benefits under the new government program.

“In the individual market, plans change every year,” Sebelius said. “This market has always been the Wild West.”

Most of the cancellations are due to the fact that these polices do not offer coverage comprehensive enough to meet the new government standards. Obamacare comes with 10 types of coverage that the government deems as “minimum requirements” for all Americans to carry.

Despite the fact that the companies are forced to comply with these new federal mandates, Sebelius then blamed the insurance companies for the cancellations.

“Insurance companies cancel individual policies year in and year out,” she said. “They are a one-year contract with individuals. They are not lifetime plans.”

But Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., reminded the HHS secretary that Americans prefer choices.

“Some people like to drive a Ford not a Ferrari,” Blackburn said. “Some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem. You’re taking away their choice.”

Later on Wednesday, Obama tried to tout the new healthcare law during an appearance in Boston. The president spent nearly six minutes explaining why some people are losing their insurance despite his 2009 promise that this would not happen.

Like Sebelius, Obama blamed “these bad apple insurers” and pledged that those facing cancellations would get better plans. The president did not offer an apology for wrongly claiming that if you liked your insurance you could keep it while now stressing that a “vast majority” can keep their healthcare plans.

At her hearing earlier in the day, Sebelius was unable to answer a question about abortion coverage posed by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. Pro-life groups are discovering abortion coverage surcharges hidden in some of the new multi-state healthcare exchanges created by Obamacare. Legislation has since been introduced to provide more transparency in what types of coverage someone is buying.

Shimkus asked Sebelius if she would “commit to us to make sure that the federal exchanges that offer [abortion] are clearly identified … so people can understand if they’re going to buy a policy that has abortion coverage or not?”

Sebelius’ response will not comfort many pro-life Americans: “Sir, I … I don’t know. … I … I know exactly the, the, uh, um, issue that you are talking about. I will check and make sure.”

The HHS secretary also could not provide firm answers regarding whether the Obamacare website will be secure even as millions of Americans are being asked to input sensitive personal information. “I don’t know,” Sebelius said, calling security an “ongoing operation.”

But Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., had some answers ready for Sebelius. He introduced a letter written to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Marilyn Tavenner, which stated that security assessments were “only partly completed.” The letter, dated Sept. 27—just days before the website’s Oct. 1 launch—said the incomplete security check “constitutes a risk that must be accepted and mitigated.” The letter written by senior technical officials gave the website a temporary security certificate.

“You accepted a risk on behalf of every user … that put their personal financial information at risk,” Rogers told Sebelius. “Don’t you think you have the obligation to tell the American people that ‘we’re going to put you in this system but beware your information is likely to be vulnerable?’… Amazon would never do this. ProFlowers would never do this. Kayak would never do this. This is completely an unacceptable level of security.”

Sebelius also repeatedly claimed under questioning that it would be illegal for her to sign up for Obamacare since she gets insurance through her employer. She said it was against the law. But according to the law, an individual may reject their work coverage and sign up for an Obamacare exchange. That person would not be eligible for federal subsidies, so doing so would cost more. Yet, despite what the head of the agency overseeing Obamacare insisted, it would be legal.

Sebelius’ testimony did not seem to restore lawmakers’ confidence in Obamacare. And in the president’s afternoon speech he revealed a new line of defense for the administration: start attacking Republicans for not being willing to do more to fix a law that is only weeks old.

“You know, if Republicans in Congress were as eager to help Americans get covered as some Republican governors have shown themselves to be, we'd make a lot of progress,” Obama said. “I'm not asking them to agree with me on everything. But if they'd work with us … we'd be a lot further along.”

Jay Sekulow, with the American Center for Law and Justice said the day’s events “reinforces what’s become standard operating procedure for the Obama administration when facing a crisis: Issue an apology, pledge to do better, and move on.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.

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