Sebelius Says She Would Have Delayed Obamacare Rollout

Numerous issues with law remain

Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol HIll, Dec. 11, 2013 / AP
December 11, 2013

President Barack Obama’s top healthcare lieutenant told Congress Wednesday morning that she would have delayed the rollout of Obamacare if she had the information she has now.

Republicans peppered Kathleen Sebelius, secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, with questions during her testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health subcommittee, the committee with primary jurisdiction over the Affordable Care Act.

"I would have probably done a slower launch, maybe with fewer people," Sebelius admitted to Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), chairman of the full committee.

Republicans highlighted the administration’s numerous promises about the law before the website’s launch on Oct. 1, including that the website would be ready.

"It seems the administration’s assurances about being ready to launch were just as empty as the president’s promises that this law would mean lower costs while allowing Americans to keep the coverage and doctors they have and like," Upton said.

"Every major promise the administration made about the ACA—from being able to keep your health plan if you like it, to being able to keep your doctor if you want to, to the very premise of health reform in the first place, that the ACA would make health coverage more affordable—has proven to be wrong," said Rep. Joe Pitts (R., Penn.), the chairman of the subcommittee.

Millions of people have had their health insurance plans cancelled because the plans did not conform to the new regulations under Obamacare. After an onslaught of negative press coverage, the administration released a new regulation allowing insurance companies to offer for one year the plans they had to cancel.

"While millions are being harmed by this law, my constituents do not trust the administration when it comes to the ACA," Pitts said.

Pitts raised the possibility that fewer people get insurance through the new exchanges than the number of people who have had their health insurance policies cancelled—a situation that could actually increase the number of uninsured.

While the website appears to be improving—Sebelius said that about four times as many people enrolled in health insurance in November than in October, indicating that the website is functioning far more smoothly—other issues have continued to surface.

States are receiving incomplete information for enrolling qualifying individuals in Medicaid, opening the possibility that states could enroll people who do not qualify, Pitts said.

Insurance companies are also having trouble receiving information from the exchanges, the New York Times reported last week. Without accurate information from the exchanges, insurance companies cannot enroll people who think they have signed up for insurance.

Rep. John Barrow (D., Ga.), one of the few Democrats to vote against the law, asked about the other channels through which people can enroll. The administration is encouraging insurance companies to enroll people directly, Sebelius said.

Some enrollees’ information has been released inappropriately in California, raising concerns among some congressmen about the law’s security.

Sebelius acknowledged that the botched rollout has hurt the administration’s efforts to have people enroll through the exchanges. She noted that younger people, whom the exchanges especially need to enroll in order for the program to be financially viable, expect technology to work and could be discouraged by the flawed rollout of the website.

"To those who have been frustrated with the experience so far, we are now asking you to come back," Sebelius said.

Democrats largely defended Obamacare and criticized Republican attacks on the law.

"I’m proud of this law," declared Rep. Frank Pallone (D., NJ). "It just boggles my mind to hear the Republican comments … when the reality is the Affordable Care Act is working," Pallone said.

Sebelius told the committee that she has asked for an investigation into why the law’s rollout was so flawed. She has also instructed the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which has largely been responsible for the exchange’s implementation, to hire a Chief Risk Officer.

The questioning at times got heated, with congressmen expressing frustration over a lack of transparency from the administration and the law’s failures.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas) expressed frustration over how hard it is to pay for the insurance, which is how people ultimately ensure their enrollment in insurance plans.

"Do you know how hard it is to make that payment? Have you done that yourself?" Burgess asked.

"I have not," Sebelius responded.