Republicans hammer HHS secretary for HealthCare.gov issues

Sebelius ignored several warnings about potential problems, one senator says

Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ignored multiple auditor reports warning them of potential problems at insurance-shopping website HealthCare.gov before the site's launch Oct. 1, one Republican senator said Wednesday.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius chose to move forward with what became a botched website launch despite potential problems identified in a June U.S. Government Accountability Office report, an August HHS inspector general's report and warnings from website contractors, said Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican.

As the reports came in, Sebelius and other members of President Barack Obama's administration gave lawmakers "assurances that everything would go smoothly," Roberts said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing. The June GAO report "should have served as a warning to you," he told Sebelius.

CGI Federal, one of the main contractors for HealthCare.gov, warned in early September, that it was falling behind in several high-priority tasks, Roberts said. "In short, madam secretary, I believe you were given advice, counsel and warning from experts inside your agency and out that the health-care exchanges were not going to be ready," he said. "Furthermore, I believe to protect the administration, you chose to ignore these warnings."

Roberts repeated his calls for Sebelius, a former governor of his state, to resign as HHS secretary. Several other committee Republicans, all long-time critics of the insurance-reform law that created HealthCare.gov, ripped into Sebelius for the website's problems. The site, a key feature of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, is one way for uninsured U.S. residents to shop for new coverage soon to be available through the law.

A team of "dozens" of IT workers from inside and outside government is working to fix HealthCare, Sebelius told senators. She offered few new details on the efforts to fix the site, but said earlier protections to have the site working for the majority of users by the end of the month remain on track.

Sebelius rejected calls for HHS to take down the website and fix it, saying IT experts have concluded it's possible to fix the site while allowing people to use it to apply for insurance coverage. The tech team added more upgrades to the site, focusing on enrollment and consumer experience, and "those upgrades will continue on an aggressive schedule" until the end of November, she said.

"Delaying the Affordable Care Act wouldn't delay people's cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's [Disease]," she said. "It didn't delay the need for mental health services or cholesterol screenings or prenatal care. Delaying the Affordable Care Act doesn't delay the foreclosure notices for families forced into bankruptcy by unpayable medical bills."

While the hearing focused on the website, many Republicans also repeated questions about potentially millions of U.S. residents having their insurance coverage canceled, despite promises from Obama and Sebelius that people who like their current plans could keep them. Under the Affordable Care Act, many insurance plans in place before 2010 were grandfathered in, but plans that didn't meet the consumer protections standards in the law and were changed significantly by the insurance companies will no longer comply with U.S. law.

Republicans said they've heard from many constituents who have had their plans canceled and are being offered more expensive plans by their insurers. HHS officials have recommended that people with canceled plans shop around. Many people will find cheaper plans or plans with more coverage at a similar price to their old plans through HealthCare.gov, they have said.

Obama administration officials have "repeated time and time again" that U.S. residents can keep their plans, said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. "It's impossible to do something in this administration that gets you fired," he said.

Some Republicans also asked about security at the site, with Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, suggesting insufficient security testing could open up users to identity theft. There was one report this month of the website sharing a user's insurance application information with a second user.

Sebelius defended HealthCare.gov's security, saying the site complies with federal cybersecurity standards and is undergoing constant security monitoring. HHS officials said they have fixed the issue that allowed the user's information to be shared.

Many committee Democrats defended the Affordable Care Act and questioned why Republicans who have opposed the law are now complaining that the site isn't working well. Republicans are "concerned not about its failure, they're concerned about its success," said Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.

But many Democrats also said they were disappointed with the website's launch. "It has been a rocky rollout," said Senator Max Baucus, the committee's chairman and a Montana Democrat. "This is unacceptable. We heard multiple times that everything was on track. We now know that was not the case."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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