Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to the American people Wednesday for the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov – the web portal that is key to implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
“You deserve better. I apologize,” Secretary Sebelius said in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I am accountable to you for fixing these problems, and I'm committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.”
But even as she insisted that the site’s problems are fixable, the optics could not have been worse: The site was down, yet again, due to technical difficulties (though not HHS's fault). Uninsured Americans have until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage that goes into effect Jan. 1, the date the mandate to carry insurance starts.
The administration has promised HealthCare.gov will be functioning smoothly by Nov. 30, a month away, but has said it will reveal preliminary numbers of enrollees sooner – by mid-November. Even now, Sebelius admitted, the feature of the site that transmits the data of enrollees to insurers is still not working.
“We do not have any reliable data around enrollment, which is why we haven't given it to date,” the secretary said. She called getting the so-called 834 documents functioning properly one of the “priority fixes” for the site. After insurance companies receive the information, they need to verify it.
“According to the insurance companies who are eager to have customers, they are not getting reliable data all the way through the system,” Sebelius said.
Sebelius also faced questions on whether HealthCare.gov is secure – specifically, whether “end-to-end security tests” have been conducted since the site went live on Oct. 1.
The site is operating under a temporary security certificate, and Sebelius said she would get more information on what testing is being done. A document obtained by the Associated Press shows that officials within the HHS agency that is building the site were concerned about the site’s security.
Though the focus of the hearing was the problems with HealthCare.gov, Sebelius initially faced a barrage of questions about people receiving cancellation notices and about their fears that they would not be able to find a plan elsewhere that they like.
Those notices seemed to contradict President Obama’s regular assertion that “people who like their plan can keep their plan.” What Mr. Obama had been referring to is the provision of the 2010 ACA that grandfathers in existing plans as long as they have not undergone any substantial changes since the law was signed.
But in the individual insurance market, there has historically been a lot of “churn” – people dropping their coverage or moving into other plans – and so many individual plans are no longer protected by the “grandfather” clause. And when they fail to comply with the new, higher standards for coverage under the ACA, insurers are not allowed to renew them.
That has caused panic among some Americans, even though insurers are offering their customers new plans – and a golden opportunity for Obamacare foes to fan opposition to the law.
“What do you say to the 300,000 people in Florida … or to the 28,000 in Tennessee that cannot get health insurance?” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tennessee, vice chairwoman of the committee, asked Sebelius. “Their plans are terminated. Is [Obama] keeping his promise to them?”
“Well, first of all, Congresswoman, they can get health insurance,” the secretary replied. “They must be offered new plans, new options, either inside the marketplace, or if they don't qualify for a financial subsidy, they can shop in or out of the marketplace.”
She and other Democrats in the committee room also offered reassurance that the new plans available on the individual market come with features that none of the old plans did, including no exclusion for preexisting conditions and no termination of the plan if the policy-holder becomes ill. Women can no longer be charged more than men – at times 50 percent more, under the current conditions.
Congresswoman Blackburn directed attention to a screen shot of HealthCare.gov, which showed what anyone visiting the site has been seeing all day: a message saying, “The system is down at the moment.”
“This is what is happening right now with this website,” Blackburn said. “We've had somebody in the back trying to sign on. It is down. It is not working.”
Then she asked Sebelius for an estimate of what has been spent on the site. The answer: about $118 million on the website itself, and about $56 million on other information technology to support the web.
Sebelius promised a detailed accounting of expenditures for the site, and added that it was the Verizon system that was down. Verizon hosts the site, as well as other websites.
Blackburn then zeroed in on who was responsible for the integration of the different elements of the site, a key aspect of the site’s failure. Sebelius offered the name of Michelle Snyder, chief operating officer of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency within HHS in charge of building HealthCare.gov. Since the botched launch, HHS has made one of its outside contractors, QSSI, the new general contractor for the emergency effort to fix the site.
“Michelle Snyder is the one responsible for this debacle,” Blackburn asserted, the tension rising in the room.
“Well, excuse me, Congresswoman,” Sebelius replied. “Michelle Snyder is not responsible for those debacles. Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible.”