Embattled Sebelius to testify next week on ObamaCare rollout
By Elise Viebeck - 10/21/13 06:00 PM ET
Embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify before Congress next week about the botched rollout of ObamaCare’s insurance exchanges after rejecting GOP demands to appear this week.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee confirmed Monday night that Sebelius would meet with the committee next Wednesday.
The notice capped a day of wrangling between Sebelius and congressional Republicans who repeatedly attacked her for rejecting calls to testify at a Thursday hearing.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) accused Sebelius of “seeking to avoid accountability and stonewall the public” by declining to attend this week’s hearing.
“What is more important to Secretary Sebelius than providing answers to the American people?” Boehner said in a statement. “I hope President Obama … orders his Secretary to fully cooperate with all congressional inquires.”
Sebelius is scheduled to be in Phoenix on Thursday.
Sebelius has been under pressure for a week, with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and several GOP lawmakers calling for her resignation.
Obama has stood by her, with the White House saying last week he had confidence in the secretary that has been at his side since the beginning of his first term.
President Obama “has a lot of confidence in Kathleen Sebelius,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said Monday on MSNBC.
“Implementing this law is a hard piece of policy business. It's a hard piece of technology business and it's very hard politically. And Kathleen has taken a lot of -- a lot of hits over the years and she can very much handle them."
Yet the fight over when Sebelius would testify hampered on Monday the Obama administration's effort to regain control of the narrative surrounding ObamaCare, which has turned sharply negative because of the problems people have faced in enrolling online for health insurance.
The pressure seems likely to increase with Republicans making her the face of the dysfunctional rollout.
The New York Times reported Monday that HHS contractors may need to rewrite 5 million lines of code to make the site navigable — a task that may not be complete before the Nov. 1 deadline set by the administration.
Technical experts have raised the possibility that further problems are plaguing the site's back end.
The system relies on enormously sophisticated calculations about whether each applicant is eligible for tax credits, a component that could easily see trouble, experts say.
Health insurance companies have also reported that the system is sending them incomplete and nonsense applications for coverage.
Even Consumers Reports is cautioning site visitors to stay away temporarily.
The White House has said it will not engage in hypotheticals about whether the problems could lead to a delay in the individual mandate, something Republicans have demanded.
“Does the president think Americans should be taxed for not buying a product from a website that doesn’t work – and may not for some time?” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Monday.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday said that if people could not get access to ObamaCare, they would not face a penalty for not having insurance.
Carney did not directly answer a question about whether the problematic website could delay the mandate, but said: “The law is clear that if you do not have access to affordable health insurance, then you will not be asked to pay a penalty because you haven't purchased affordable health insurance.”
HHS is seeking to assuage concerns by highlighting changes the site is undergoing and pushing users to apply for coverage by phone.
On Sunday, the department announced that visitors are now able to compare plans and prices without creating an account, thereby avoiding a problematic bottleneck.
Federal health officials also released a Web ad featuring a man who completed the enrollment process.
The Energy and Commerce hearing will focus on when HHS knew the rollout would be rocky. Representatives of the department had previously testified that everything was on track.
“ObamaCare's problem is larger than a website failure,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement Monday.
“The website does serve as stark evidence that the federal government is ill-equipped to centrally manage our nation's healthcare.”