Panel tells Sebelius to bring 'real numbers' on enrollees next time

Updated Oct. 30, 2013 at 11:43 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Health and Human Services head Kathleen Sebelius was told to bring health coverage data when she returns before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce panel.

"We do look forward to having you back in December to get an update on where we are," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said at the end of the 3 1/2-hour hearing with Sebelius that expanded beyond the problems with "We're going to want real numbers" concerning the number of people who enrolled in health plans through, the federal government's balky website.

Sebelius said about $118 million has been spent on the website itself, and about $56 million has been expended on other IT to support the site.

Repeatedly during the hearing Sebelius was described as President Obama's "point person" on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare, and the launch of, the federal portal to shop, compare and enroll in health coverage.

When asked by several Republican members about hard data about enrollments, Sebelius demurred, saying the data wasn't reliable. She has said the information would be available by mid-November.

In her opening statement and during the hearing Sebelius said she was "responsible" for fixing the website and for what one Republican lawmaker called "the debacle."

She said the three main contractors who built the site indicated there would be risk because ventured into new ground "but nothing like this."

Sebelius said none of the contractors suggested the Oct. 1 launch date be delayed.

She assured the committee site visitors would have a smoother time after the fixes are implemented by the end of November.

In her opening statement, Sebelius apologized to the American public for the troubled federal health insurance website rollout, saying the buck stopped with her.

"You deserve better. I apologize," Sebelius said. "I'm accountable to you to fixing these problems and am committed to earning your confidence back."

Sebelius answered questions about privacy concerns and cancellation letters from insurance carriers before the committee, the second panel in as many days to take testimony concerning bug-riddled Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, appeared before the House Ways and Means panel Tuesday.

"The American people deserve answers as well as the peace of mind that promises will be kept," Upton said in his opening comments. "The secretary has an opportunity today to embrace transparency and start restoring the public's faith in the administration and the government."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said it is "understandable that there will be a focus today on what isn't working, but we must also remember what is working. The health insurance plans that are being offered in the exchanges are good plans. Their premiums are much lower than expected."

"I would urge my colleagues to stop hyperventilating," Waxman said. "The problems with are unfortunate and we should investigate them, but they will be fixed."

Questioned about Obama's oft-made statement that people who liked their current plans could keep them in light of many insurance carriers sending cancellation letters to individual policyholders, Sebelius said the regulation involving grandfathered plans would remain in effect as long as they don't unduly burden the consumer without having to comply with any of the ACA regulations.

Committee Republicans spoke of constituents who received cancellation notices of insurance coverage they liked and were being forced to pay higher premiums for comparable coverage.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Sebelius, "You're taking away their choice."

Responding to questioning by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., Sebelius said insurance companies could not force consumers to buy their policies to the exclusion of other carriers.

"Consumers have a right to shop anywhere for plans," Sebelius said. "No one is rolled over into a plan."

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, got a commitment from Sebelius to eliminate language in the site's source code concerning privacy.

"It says you have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding any communication or data transiting or information stored on the system at any time and for any lawful government purpose, the government may monitor, intercept, search and seize any communication or data transiting or stored on the information system; any communication or data transiting or stored on this information system may be disclosed or used for any lawful government purpose," Barton said.

"I can tell you it's my understanding that, that is boilerplate language that should not have been in this particular contract, because there are -- the highest security standards in place and people have every right to expect privacy," Sebelius responded.

Several Democratic members accused GOP colleagues of throwing out "red herrings" concerning both the law and the website because they want to get rid of the healthcare law.

"You know," Rep. Jan Shakowsky, D-Ill., said, "I want to say to my colleagues after a three-and-a-half year campaign to repeal, to discredit, to even shut down the government over Obamacare, I want to say, get over it."

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