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Sebelius: Experts advised against suspending healthcare.gov for fixes

Nov. 6, 2013 at 2:37 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- The federal health exchange website remains up based on advice that shutting it down may not be best for fixing it, the top U.S. healthcare official said.

"I'm relying on the advice of not only of the inside team and contractors, but a lot of the outside experts who have come in to take a look at this system," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

"[We] have asked that question a number of times, would it just be helpful to take the whole system down and make fixes along the way? We've been advised that that actually doesn't help, that it is better to do routine operations," Sebelius said of healthcare.gov, the main portal for many to review, compare and buy health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

After running diagnostics following what she acknowledged was a "miserable" Oct. 1 launch of the website, contractors and experts determined "at the outset that healthcare.gov is fixable, that it isn't fatally flawed, which was the initial report out of many people."

In her opening remarks, Sebelius laid out what she called a more "straightforward" reason to launch the website, warts and all, a vital component of ACA.

"Delaying the Affordable Care Act wouldn't delay people's cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's [or] delay the need for mental health services or cholesterol screenings or prenatal care," she said. "Delaying the Affordable Care Act doesn't delay the foreclosure notices for families forced into bankruptcy by unpayable medical bills. It doesn't delay the higher costs all of us pay when uninsured Americans are left with no choice but to rely on emergency rooms for care."

"So for millions of Americans, delay is not an option," she said. "People's lives depend on this."

As she did last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Sebelius shouldered responsibility for the "miserably frustrating experience" of millions of Americans who struggled to access the problem-riddled website only to be timed out or face a blank screen during the process.

While Sebelius rejected calls from critics seeking her resignation as well as delaying or undoing undo the Affordable Care Act, Republican committee members accused the Obama administration of consistently being less than honest with American consumers about ACA, citing the president's assertion that if people were satisfied with their current plans or doctor, they'd be able to keep them under Obamacare.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, citing a Congressional Budget Office statistic that 78 million policyholders wouldn't be able to keep their employer-provided coverage under the law, said Obama's statements about being able to retain coverage "is a false statement made to the American people that this administration has consistently doubled down on and repeated time and again."

"And the only thing I can conclude is that it's impossible to do something in this administration that gets you fired. It's impossible," Cornyn said. "You can lie to the American people. You can consistently misrepresent the facts, but it's impossible to get fired."

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Sebelius acted on her "zeal" in implementing the exchanges rather than act on advice to wait.

"You have said Americans should hold you accountable, which is why today, Madam Secretary, I repeat my request for you to resign," Roberts said.

Defending the law and Sebelius' actions, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., called the Republican effort to defund the law "absolutely maniacal, really admirable, but maniacal."

"I'm incredibly proud of the bill, and I'm incredibly proud of you and Marilyn Tavenner [administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] going before committees and getting eviscerated, but standing your ground," Rockefeller said to Sebelius.

Rockefeller later said Republicans "have the responsibility to help, as opposed to simply criticize a couple of statements that have been made."

Utah's Orrin Hatch, the committee's ranking Republican, responded to Rockefeller's comments, saying a lot of Republicans and some Democrats were concerned that the healthcare law would turn into a "socialized medicine situation where we really, really can't control the costs, can't control the system, and we denigrate the system instead of helping it."

Hatch earlier said he didn't envy Sebelius' having to be the point person on the law and its implementation.

Republicans, he said, aren't trying to give her a rough time.

"We're in it to try and hopefully get it right," Hatch said.

"I would love to work with you to get it right," Sebelius responded.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the hearing's main point was "to get it right" and there was bipartisan support for that statement.

"But it's a two-way street," Baucus told Sebelius near the end of the nearly three-hour meeting. "You've got to tell us what's working and what's not working. ... And the more you don't tell us, the greater the problem is going to be. The more you do tell us, the good and the bad, the more likely it is that we're going to get this right at an earlier date."

During his opening statement, Baucus gave Sebelius a vote of confidence, saying he didn't buy into calls for her resignation over the rollout of healthcare.gov

"You need to stay at [Health and Human Services] to help get the marketplace working," Baucus said.

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