After weeks of scrutiny, accusations, and calls for resignations by Republicans, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee today to defend the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) after a month of significant enrollment challenges. She faced questions on the cost and management decisions associated with the challenged healthcare.gov website, the enrollment portal for the federal health care exchanges. Ironically, the website was down and inaccessible as she gave her testimony.
Sebelius’ testimony follows an October 24, 2013 House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing where federal contractors hired by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and HHS to manage the website and paper enrollment processes pointed the finger at HHS when asked who is responsible for the website’s flaws and challenges. Today, Sebelius did not point the finger at CMS or HHS staff, stating that she and CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner have been responsible for decisions to date. CMS Administrator Tavenner provided similar testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday.
Sebelius faced questions on costs expended to date, stating that approximately $118 million has been spent on the healthcare.gov website and about $56 million on additional IT to support it. She offered to get back to the Committee by mid-November 2013 with numbers concerning enrollment in the exchange marketplaces.
While both political parties expressed concern or outrage over the massive exchange website problems to date, Republicans largely defined the problems as an illustration of how flawed Obamacare is overall, while Democrats overwhelmingly characterized the problem as a short-term, fixable glitch.
Some Democratic lawmakers likened the problems to those faced during implementation of the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. However, several on the Committee also sought to distinguish the implementation challenges from those of past programs and mention other problems beyond the website, including data privacy. The federal data hub meant to link exchange applicant data to determine eligibility for subsidies has become a political target. Whether personal information is protected and for how long it is stored by the federal government is something of great question, which has resulted in varying answers from the Administration.
The Senate is planning similar hearings next week, with CMS Administrator Tavenner testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, and HHS Secretary Sebelius testifying before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, November 6, 2013. Additional hearings and scrutiny over the next several months are anticipated in the lead-up to the January 1 enrollment date for the exchange marketplaces.