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Congressmen Berate Sebelius For Cancellations, Website Woes

Oct 31, 2013
Originally published on November 1, 2013 5:21 pm

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius headed to Capitol Hill Wednesday for a date with lawmakers frustrated by the rocky rollout of the HealthCare.gov website.

What she got at the House Energy and Commerce Committee was four hours of venting from Democrats and Republicands alike.

Like Medicare and Medicaid chief Marilyn Tavenner a day earlier, Sebelius opened her testimony with an apology.

"I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of Healthcare.gov," she told the committee. "So let me say directly to these Americans, you deserve better. I apologize."

But unlike Tuesday's hearing for Tavenner before the Ways and Means Committee, Sebelius's appearance was marred by an additional embarrassment.

"This is what's happening right now with this website — we've had somebody in the back trying to sign on," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. "It is down."

Indeed, HHS officials confirmed later in the day another failure by outside vendor Verizon Terremark, which they said was related to one last weekend. This latest one resulted in what Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Spokeswoman Julie Bataille called a "partial outage of HealthCare.gov."

Cable networks CNN and MSNBC both showed Sebelius in a split screen, with her on one side and a computer error message on the other. Sebelius also confirmed that the reason officials aren't giving out enrollment information yet is that they're not sure whether it's accurate.

"Sir," she told Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., "I would tell you right now it is not reliable data according to the insurance companies who are eager to have customers. They are not getting reliable data all the way through the system."

But website woes took up only a portion of the questioning from members of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Members also challenged the secretary about insurance company cancellation letters now going out.

"I would guess there are a lot of us on this panel today hearing from angry and confused constituents, who are now being forced to go onto an inept website, whether they like it or not, to shop for a replacement policy," said Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.

People whose coverage is being canceled will have plenty of options, including from their current insurance company, said Sebelius.

"Actually it's the law that they must get another plan. Continuous coverage is part of the law," she told the committee.

But Blackburn said many of her constituents aren't happy with the new options, some of which are more expensive than the plans they have now, even if those plans don't offer comprehensive coverage.

"Some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem," she said.

Democratic members of the committee were frustrated with the Republican attacks, noting since they do not support the law, they were likely not genuine about attempts to fix it.

"Unlike Chicken Little," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., "my Republican colleagues are actually rooting for the sky to fall."

Apparently Sebelius did well enough to earn another vote of confidence from the White House. And next week she'll appear before the Senate Finance Committee. Several senators have called for her firing or resignation.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Officials called before Congress to testify about a failure usually follow a pattern. The classic message has two parts: Sorry we made a mistake, but we are already taking steps to fix it.

INSKEEP: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the first part yesterday about the troubled website set up for many Americans to shop for health insurance. But she met intense skepticism on the second part.

MONTAGNE: We're going to listen to the resulting debate over the health care law, starting with NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Sebelius, like Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner a day earlier, opened her testimony with an apology.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.gov. So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize.

ROVNER: But unlike a day earlier, Sebelius's appearance was marred by an additional embarrassment, as noted by Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE MARSHA BLACKBURN: This is what is happening right now with this website. We've had somebody in the back trying to sign on. It is down.

ROVNER: Indeed, HHS officials confirmed later in the day another failure by outside vendor Verizon Terremark, which they said was related to one last weekend. This latest one resulted in what they called a, quote, partial outage of HealthCare.gov. Still, several cable networks showed Sebelius in a split screen, with her on one side and a computer error message on the other. Sebelius also confirmed that the reason officials aren't giving out enrollment information yet is that they're not sure whether it's accurate.

Here's how she put it to Republican Lee Terry of Nebraska.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE LEE TERRY: And you will not let us have it now.

SEBELIUS: Sir, I would tell you right now it is not reliable data according to the insurance companies, who are eager to have customers. They are not getting reliable data all the way through the system.

ROVNER: But website woes took up only a portion of the questioning from members of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Members also challenged the secretary about insurance company cancellation letters now going out. Here's committee chairman Fred Upton of Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE FRED UPTON: And I would guess that there are a lot of us on this panel today that are hearing from angry and confused constituents who are now being forced to go onto an inept website - whether they like it or not - to shop for a new replacement policy.

ROVNER: Sebelius said people whose coverage is being canceled will have plenty of options, including from their current insurance company.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SEBELIUS: Actually, it's the law that they must get another plan. Continuous coverage is part of the law.

ROVNER: But Congresswoman Blackburn said many of her constituents aren't happy with the new options, some of which are more expensive than the plans they have now - even if those plans don't offer comprehensive coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

BLACKBURN: Some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari. And some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem.

ROVNER: Democratic members of the committee were frustrated with the Republican attacks, noting, like New York's Eliot Engel, that if they don't support the law anyway, how can they be genuine about attempts to fix it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE ELIOT ENGLE: Unlike Chicken Little, my Republican colleagues are actually rooting for the sky to fall.

ROVNER: Apparently Sebelius did well enough to earn another vote of confidence from the White House. And next week she'll appear before the Senate Finance Committee. Several senators have called for her firing or resignation.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.