U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius arrives for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Oct. 30, 2013. Sebelius apologized to consumers but said improvements have been made to the Affordable Care Act website and that it would be fixed within a month. UPI/Yuri Gripas. | License Photo
If love is never having to say you're sorry, there's apparently no love between lawmakers and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius when it comes to health insurance.
Sebelius has been on the hot-seat twice in the past two weeks, taking abuse and answering questions regarding the botched rollout of the health insurance marketplace website that was supposed to sign up millions of Americans for coverage. Additionally lawmakers now are accusing the administration of lying because substandard policies are being canceled for millions -- even though President Obama famously promised, "If you like your insurance, you will keep your insurance."
Lost in the rhetoric is that most of the canceled policies, though cheap, would cover only a fraction of the expenses incurred in the event of a serious illness or accident.
Back to Sebelius.
Amid calls for her resignation, she appeared last week before the Senate Committee on Finance, which followed an appearance the preceding week before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, accepting the blame for healthcare.gov's inadequacies.
"When this law [the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare] was created, we made a promise to the American people. We made a promise to fix a broken system. We made a promise to ensure that all Americans have access to quality, affordable healthcare. We made a promise to make sure that no one ever went broke just because they got sick. You, madam secretary, must make good on that promise," panel Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., a key architect of the law, chided, adding, "There is no room for error."
And those were among the kinder words.
"Madame secretary, while I am glad that you are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have preferred ... you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, scolded.
"It is simply inexcusable that the members of this committee were not told earlier that these problems were occurring."
Healthcare.gov opened Oct. 1 with inadequate capacity and alleged security issues. Contractors responsible for creating the site blamed the federal government for not providing adequate time for end-to-end testing. The result: Only six people were able to sign up for coverage the first day and the number since is relatively low considering 47 million Americans are uninsured and millions more are underinsured.
Sebelius used her Wednesday appearance to point out improvements in the site in recent weeks, noting it now can register 17,000 applicants an hour and those registering can see whether they are eligible for financial assistance rather than a blank screen.
She also defended plowing ahead despite the technical problems.
"Delaying the Affordable Care Act wouldn't delay people's cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's ... [or] need for mental health services or cholesterol screenings or prenatal care ... [or] the foreclosure notices for families forced into bankruptcy by unpayable medical bills ... [or] the higher costs all of us pay when uninsured Americans are left with no choice but to rely on emergency rooms for care," Sebelius countered.
So far, Sebelius said, several hundred "functional fixes" have been identified. The end-to-end testing most sites undergo before going live actually is happening real-time as consumers try to get coverage, she said.
Meanwhile, Obama has been on an apology tour for the screw-ups. Stops have included an appearance in Dallas Wednesday and an NBC interview Thursday.
"Ultimately, all the politics, all the chatter sometimes leaves out the fact that the system we had, the status quo just wasn't working for too many people. And so it was important for us, as difficult and challenging as it has been, to go ahead and move forward to make sure that folks ... when they go to the hospital because they've been stricken with an illness, know not only that they're going to get good care, but also that their families aren't going to go bankrupt just because somebody in the family got sick. That's what we've been fighting for," Obama told about 150 volunteers helping people sign up for coverage at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas.
"I'm the first to say that the first month I've not been happy with. [Laughter] You've all heard about the website woes. Nothing drives me more crazy than the fact that right now, there's great insurance to be had out there, choice and competition, where people can save money for a better product -- except too many folks haven't been able to get through the website.
"Now, this is like having a really good product in a store, and the cash registers don't work and there aren't enough parking spots and nobody can get through the door. And so we are working overtime to get this fixed. And the website is already better than it was at the beginning of October, and by the end of this month, we anticipate that it is going to be working the way it is supposed to, all right? And folks are working 24/7 to make sure that happens."
At the White House Thursday, Obama made apologies in an NBC interview and defended Sebelius' performance.
"You know, Kathleen Sebelius doesn't write code. Yeah, she wasn't our [information technology] person," Obama said. "I think she'd be the first to admit that if we had to do it all over again, that there would have been a whole lot more questions that were asked, in terms of how this thing is working. But my priority right now is to get it fixed.
"Ultimately, the buck stops with me."
But all the assurances are having little effect on smoothing the waters with Democratic lawmakers, especially the 21 senators up for re-election next year. Before Obama headed for Dallas, 16 of them, some of them particularly vulnerable, traipsed up to the White House for a briefing on ACA progress. Obama also asked them for input on how the law is affecting their constituents.
"It's absolutely unacceptable in this day and age that the administration can't deliver on the promises it made to all Americans because of technical problems with a website," Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said after the briefing.
Earlier in the week, White House officials met with insurance industry executives and Humana later issued a forecast cutting the number of new subscribers it expects by half -- from 500,000 to 250,000.
Americans have until March 31 to obtain healthcare coverage. The administration is resisting pressure to push back the deadline any further. It already had been extended by six weeks.