WASHINGTON – Republicans blistered Health and Human Services Secretary
Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday over the nation’s controversial health care
law, bluntly challenging her honesty, pushing for her resignation and
demanding unsuccessfully she concede that President Barack Obama
deliberately misled the public about his signature domestic program.
“We’re not in it to just give you a rough time. We’re in it to try and
hopefully get it right,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, at a hearing where
Republicans – all of whom had voted against “Obamacare” – focused on the
program’s flawed sign-up website as well as costs, policy cancellations,
security concerns and other issues.
During two hours in the Senate Finance Committee witness chair, Sebelius
parried some thrusts and listened impassively to others. Treated more gently
by Democrats than Republicans, she said at one point: “Clearly the
opposition is still quite ferocious, and I’m just hoping that people
understand what their options are, what their benefits could be and what
their opportunities are.”
She offered few if any concessions about a program she pointedly observed
“passed both houses of Congress, was signed by the president and upheld by
the Supreme Court.”
Nor did she provide much in the way of new information about the launch of a
website that she has conceded was deeply flawed. She disclosed that the
so-called punch list for repairs had included “a couple of hundred
functional fixes” at the time the administration launched its urgent rescue
mission last month.
Even now, she said, “we’re not where we need to be.”
She added that the Web portal now is handling large volumes of material with
fewer errors. However, as she testified, the website, was running sluggishly, with some users encountering difficulty and
others receiving error messages.
At a Dallas synagogue Wednesday, Obama assured volunteers that their efforts
to sign people up for coverage would be well worth the trouble. “As
challenging as this may seem sometimes, as frustrating as HealthCare.gov may
be sometimes, we are going to get his done,” Obama said.
Just before leaving Washington, Obama met with 16 Democratic senators facing
re-election in 2014 to discuss the troubled website rollout. They pressed
him to extend the March 31 enrollment deadline, but White House press
secretary Jay Carney rejected the idea.
Republican criticism and questions have turned in recent days into other
areas, some blending policy and politics.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, one of Sebelius’ most aggressive questioners,
read aloud from a page of the White House website that says: “If you like
your plan, you can keep it and you don’t have to change a thing due to the
health care law.”
Turning to Sebelius, he said, “Well, we know that lying to Congress is a
crime, but unfortunately lying to the American people is not. I’d just like
to ask you a simple true-or-false question. Is that statement on the White
House website true or is it false?” Sebelius said, “Sir, I think the
statement is that. …” before Cornyn cut her off.
“Is it true or is it false, Madame Secretary?” he asked.
She said “a vast majority” of people who are insured through their jobs
would keep their plans and “a majority” of the 11 million in the individual
market will keep plans with stronger coverage while “others will have to
choose if they have to choose if they have a brand new plan and not a
grandfathered – have to choose of a plan that they no longer get medically
Cornyn responded, “I will just ask that the record … note that you have
refused to answer my question whether it’s true or false.”
At the heart of his questioning was the recent flood of millions of
cancellation notices that insurance companies have sent to individual
policyholders, despite assurances dating to 2009 by the president that
people would be able to keep their coverage if they liked it.
Several other Republicans also referred to the cancellations when their turn
came to question Sebelius.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked if it violated Obama’s promise that so many
plans were canceled for falling short of the law’s coverage requirements.
Avoiding a direct response, Sebelius said, “For the vast majority of people
who get employer-based health care, are in a public plan, are in the VA
plan, are in Medicare, are part of the insurance market, their plans are
very much in place. There is change coming in the individual marketplace
with consumer protections that many people have never” had.
As senior Republican on the panel, Hatch led off. “While I’m glad that you
are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have
preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to
begin with,” he said.
Rather than ask Sebelius questions, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas – the
secretary is a former governor of the state – used his allotted time to
raise numerous complaints about the law and her performance as the
administration official in charge.
Roberts, who faces a tea party challenger in a bid for re-election next
year, noted delays in parts of the law and said website woes have caused
public uncertainty and fear.
“Your main goal should have been to protect Americans, to lessen their risk
and to ensure their safety. But in your zeal to implement this law, not
warnings, not advice, not counsel would deter you from implementing the
exchanges,” he said. “You have said America should hold you for -
accountable, which is why today, Madam Secretary, I repeat my request for
you to resign.”
Sebelius did not respond.
Applicants’ ID security was another focus. Republicans said the
administration put in jeopardy the personal information of Americans by
taking the website live before security testing was fully completed.
“So not only can millions of Americans not log in to the website
successfully, but those who have actually succeeded could now find
themselves at the mercy of identity thieves across the globe,” said Hatch.
Sebelius said security issues were taken very seriously and “no one
suggested that the risks outweighed the importance of moving forward” with
the Oct. 1 launch date for the new insurance markets.
No major breaches have been reported, although in one publicized case the
personal information of a South Carolina man was delivered to a website user
who lives in North Carolina.
Broader security concerns have arisen because the part of the website that
consumers interact with directly was not fully tested.
Federal law requires all government computer systems to have a security
certification before going live. Yet on Sept. 27, Marilyn Tavenner, head of
the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, agreed to a temporary permit
that said, “Aspects of the system that were not tested due to the ongoing
development exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed as a high
Separately, officials said the chief information security officer at the
agency, Tony Trenkle, who was involved in the decision to issue the
certificate, is resigning to take a job in the private sector. CMS
spokeswoman Julie Bataille sidestepped questions about the reasons for the