WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has not released the number of Americans who have enrolled in new health insurance plans online because there is not “any reliable data,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told members of Congress on Wednesday.
At issue is a glitch in the application process that is meant to send information consumers submit online to insurance companies during the enrollment process. Insurance companies have been receiving inadequate or confusing information, which Sebelius said is one of the “priority fixes” being made.
“According to the insurance companies who are eager to have customers, they are not getting reliable data all the way through the system,” Sebelius said. She said she intends to release “confirmed data” on a monthly basis beginning in November. “The system isn't functioning, so we are not getting that reliable data,” she said.
Critics suspected the administration was withholding information about enrollment because it was failing to meet the administration’s benchmarks. If signups are significantly below expectations – which Sebelius said at this point they appeared to be – it could further complicate the intent of the law, particularly if younger, healthier Americans do not enroll to balance the risk of consumers with greater health needs.
Technical problems that have marred the rollout of the most crucial piece of the implementation of President Obama’s health law were a recurring theme of the House hearing Wednesday, with members at various points referring to a screen that showed in real time how HealthCare.gov continued to have operational problems.
Sebelius apologized for what she acknowledged was a “miserably frustrating experience” for many Americans seeking new coverage, and repeatedly said she – and not President Obama -- should be held accountable for the “debacle.”
“I'm responsible,” she said.
Still, Sebelius maintained that the law on the whole, “by any fair measure,” was working. She also argued that despite major issues the website “has never crashed.”
“It is functional, but at a very slow speed and very low reliability, and has continued to function,” she said.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who also chairs the Intelligence Committee, raised concern about the security of consumers’ personal data that were being submitted through the website. He read from a Sept. 27 memo from Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the online health marketplaces, which warned that an outside contractor had not been able to test security controls.
“Don't you think you had the obligation to tell the American people that we're going to put you in this system, but beware, your information is likely to be vulnerable?” Rogers asked Sebelius.
She answered that regular monitoring and testing continues, and security protocols continued to be upgraded.
Republicans pressed Sebelius repeatedly in a way that Tavenner, who testified before the House Ways and Mean Committee on Tuesday, had not been.
Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) at one point held up a letter he had personally received from his insurance company telling him his family’s policy would be canceled. He asked why Sebelius was not enrolling in coverage through the health exchange, as members of Congress and their staff would now be required to do.
“You're literally in charge of this law. Should you be any different than all of the other Americans out there losing their health insurance?” he asked.
Another, Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) pressed that issue further moments later, leading to one of the more combative exchanges of the day.
Sebelius, who initially resisted answering Long’s questions about enrolling in the exchange because she said she was not eligible to do so, ultimately said she “would gladly join the exchange if I didn't have affordable coverage in my workplace.”
Democratic members of the committee stepped in at times to rebut Republicans’ lines of questioning. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) joked that Sebelius would need a policy that “would protect you from cheap shots.”
“You love what's wrong with the website, and you detest what's working in the Affordable Care Act. And I think that that is on full display here,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) said to her Republican colleagues.
Sebelius appeared to emerge from the more than 3-1/2-hour hearing unscathed, with even a top Republican critic of the Affordable Care Act resisting to join calls for her to step down.
“This doesn’t end with her. This is President Obama’s signature law,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said after the hearing. “The main thing I wanted is for Secretary Sebelius to hear the stories of real American people who are being hurt by this law.”