Obamacare

Sebelius Holds Her Ground, Smiling at Healthcare.gov Detractors


Sebelius (left), facing the media at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Sebelius (left), facing the media at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday

It was hardly the political tar-and-feathering some expected. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius calmly deflected hostile questions during her testimony before a House committee about the failed launch of healthcare.gov, the website people are supposed to use to sign up for health insurance under Obamacare. She made a point of smiling, even when Republican did their best to rattle her.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise; the former Kansas governor is a political professional. Then again, her inquisitors eased her performance by frequently departing from the hearing’s primary topic. Republicans on the panel often seemed more eager to discuss their party’s latest anti-Obamacare talking points: how existing coverage of privately insured constituents is being canceled and how the president may have fibbed when he vowed that people would be able to keep their plans.

Sebelius responded that the law forbids insurance companies from jettisoning customers. She didn’t really grapple with the concern that some might see premiums rise as a result. But then, critics on the committee didn’t press her on the issue effectively.

As expected, Sebelius offered an obligatory mea culpa: “I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the failure of the launch of healthcare.gov,” she said. “Let me say directly to the Americans. You deserve better. I apologize.” She reiterated her own lack of involvement in the development of the website—which is convenient, now that there are calls for her resignation.

By straying from the website debacle, however, the Republicans gave Sebelius the chance to recycle the main themes of the White House’s defensive playbook, namely that the Affordable Care Act isn’t just a glitch-prone website. It’s also a law that enables young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26 years old and extends Medicare coverage for seniors—things many Republicans and their voters also support. As for the website and when it might actually be functional, Sebelius was adamant that it would be fixed by late November and said everybody should be patient.
 
Republicans did a better job of embarrassing the administration at a hearing on Tuesday that featured Centers for Medicare and Medicaid administrator Marilyn Tavenner, who was in charge of the website. Representative Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, made Tavenner look foolishly evasive as he pressed her for numbers on how many people have enrolled:

Camp: “You have no numbers on who’s enrolled? So you have no idea?”
Tavenner: “We will have those numbers available by mid-November.”
Camp: “So no one is forwarding even weekly updates?”
Tavenner: “We will get those numbers in mid-November.”
Camp: “I understand you’re not publicly releasing those numbers. But I’m asking, do you have any idea on a weekly basis how many people enrolled? I mean, how do you not know how many people have enrolled?”
Tavener: “Chairman Camp, we will have those numbers available in mid-November.”

Sebelius must have watched Tavenner’s performance. The health secretary offered a slightly better tone in her response to such questions today: ”I don’t want to turn over any data this is not confirmed and reliable,” Sebelius smoothly insisted. Whether that should make anyone feel better about Obamacare’s bungled rollout is a separate matter.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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