Republicans hammer HHS secretary for HealthCare.gov issues

Sebelius ignored several warnings about potential problems, one senator says

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

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."

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