Sebelius Apologizes for 'Flawed Launch' of Federal Exchange Website

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On Wednesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the "flawed launched" of the federal health insurance exchange website and said she shares the frustration of millions of consumers who have tried to enroll, but she expressed confidence that the website will be "optimally functioning" by the end of November, the Washington Post reports.

Sebelius was testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee during the last of three hearings over the past week that House Republicans conducted to better understand the reasons behind the HealthCare.gov portal's technical glitches and delays.
Addressing consumers who have faced a variety problems accessing the site and enrolling in coverage, she said, "You deserve better. I apologize," adding, "I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems, and I'm committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site" (Branigin/Somashekhar, Washington Post, 10/30).

Although she accepted some of the blame for the problematic launch of the federal exchange, Sebelius said in her opening remarks that the federal contractors hired to build and implement the portal "have not met expectations" and "end-to-end testing" of the site -- which she said was done over a two-week period -- was not conducted adequately.

Sebelius noted that she and other government officials were expecting some problems when the exchange was opened for enrollment on Oct. 1, but they did not expect the problems of their current magnitude. "I was wrong. We were wrong," she said (Kennedy/Camia, USA Today, 10/30).

Sebelius also addressed several related issues and actions that various lawmakers have called for her and the Obama administration to address in recent days. She said that despite the problems with the exchange website, there are no plans to extend the six-month open enrollment period beyond March 31, Bloomberg reports (Wayne/Armstrong, Bloomberg, 10/30). Sebelius also declined to provide lawmakers with an enrollment estimate because she said the numbers were not "reliable" (Washington Post, 10/30).

She also said the Obama administration might not be able to penalize the federal contractors that worked on the website, but she noted that while "[t]here isn't a built-in penalty ... paying for work that isn't complete is not something we will do" (Bloomberg, 10/30). Separately, she told lawmakers that the government already has spent $118 million to build the website and an additional $56 million on information technology to support it (USA Today, 10/30).

During the hearing, Sebelius defended two of her colleagues who played prominent roles in the development of HealthCare.gov.

When asked by Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) whether she is will ask Gary Cohen -- director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at CMS -- to resign, Sebelius replied, "I will not, sir." She also asked that any blame for the website's problem be shifted away from Michelle Snyder, chief operations officer for the CMS, who was in charge of building the portal (Bloomberg, 10/30).

Lawmakers Cite New Internal Memo Highlighting 'Risk'

During the hearing, Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) cited a newly released internal government memo, which indicated that HealthCare.gov had not undergone adequate tests for security issues and "exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed as a risk" (USA Today, 10/30).

The Sept. 27 memo to CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner obtained by the Associated Press indicated that a website contractor was unable to adequately test all the security controls of the portal during final testing. The memo also noted that the website was granted a temporary security certificate, which allows government computer systems to operate under specific circumstances, according to AP/ABC News.

Rogers said, "You accepted a risk on behalf of every user ... that put their personal financial information at risk," adding, "Amazon would never do this. ProFlowers would never do this. Kayak would never do this. This is completely an unacceptable level of security" (Alonso-Zaldivar/Kellman, AP/ABC News, 10/30).

In response, Sebelius said, "Each of the component parts was tested and independently validated," but acknowledged that "[c]learly we did not adequately do end-to-end testing" (Pear, New York Times, 10/30). She added, "The products were not locked and loaded into the system until the third week of September," in part because price and other insurer data were not available until September (Washington Post, 10/30).

Several lawmakers, including Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.), noted that during previous hearings, HHS officials and federal contractors expressed confidence that the website would work. Upton said, "Over the months leading up to the Oct. 1 launch, [Sebelius] and her colleagues repeatedly looked us in the eye and testified that everything was on track. Despite the numerous red flags and lack of testing, they assured us that all systems were a go. But something happened along the way. Either those officials did not know how bad the situation was, or they did not disclose it" (New York Times, 10/30).

Democrats Defend Sebelius

Several Democrats during the hearing defended Sebelius and criticized their Republican colleagues for their line of questioning, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, predicted that the early problems "will soon be forgotten" (Schatz/Radnofsky, Wall Street Journal, 10/30). He added, "The Affordable Care Act is working" and "I would urge my colleagues to stop hyperventilating."

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) charged that Republicans were out to "sabotage the [ACA], scare people and bring up red herrings." He said, "This whole idea ... that somehow policies are being canceled and people don't have alternatives is just another red herring. This is not socialized medicine. This is private insurance in a competitive market."

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) also criticized Republican lawmakers, saying they reminded him of Chicken Little. But "unlike Chicken Little, my Republican colleagues are actually rooting for the sky to fall," he said, adding, "They're rooting for failure" (Washington Post, 10/30).


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