HHS head to testify on troubled website rollout

Associated Press
FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2013 file photo, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks in Phoenix. As the public face of President Barack Obama’s signature health care program, Sebelius has become the target for attacks over its botched rollout. Republicans want her to resign and even some Democrats _ while not mentioning her name _ say someone needs to be fired. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
.

View gallery

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the public face of President Barack Obama's signature health care program, Kathleen Sebelius has become the target for attacks over its botched rollout. Republicans want her to resign and even some Democrats — while not mentioning Sebelius — say someone should be fired.

The secretary of Health and Human Services has been lampooned on late-night comedy shows, from "The Daily Show" to "Saturday Night Live," in which a stand-in Sebelius last week offered tips to people having trouble signing into the new health care website: restart your computer, send a postcard to Washington with the word "help" or buy an airline ticket to Canada.

For months, Sebelius had projected steady confidence that the online health insurance markets would open Oct. 1 as scheduled in all 50 states and that a website that's the key to public enrollments would be ready. How much she knew about the website's problems, and when, are key questions she'll face Wednesday at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

So far she appears to have Obama's backing. Officials sat Sebelius, one of his longest-serving Cabinet secretaries, in the front row of the audience at a Rose Garden health care event last week — a symbolic signal that she remains a central part of the president's team. She also is helped by Obama's general reluctance to fire people quickly, particularly in the face of political pressure. White House officials frequently say the president works on a different timetable than much of Washington and doesn't see the benefit of symbolic firings.

Firing her could be seen as an admission from the White House that the website woes are an indication of broader flaws in the health care law.

Sebelius has acknowledged that the launch has been "rockier than we would have liked." Obama agreed, saying last week that the site has been "too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it's fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am."

The program's website, HealthCare.gov, is still plagued by technical problems that make it difficult — if not near impossible — for people to sign up for health insurance.

Host Jon Stewart put the problems in perspective for many when Sebelius was a guest on his "Daily Show" recently.

Whipping out his laptop, he told her: "I'm gonna try and download every movie ever made and you're gonna try and sign up for Obamacare and we'll see which happens first."

Andy Slavitt, representing contractor Quality Software Services, Inc., told Congress last week that his company relayed concerns to the government prior to the disastrous launch. Exactly what those concerns were, and who heard them, remains unclear. The major website contractors said testing of the entire system didn't occur until a couple weeks before going live, and they would have preferred to have done it months earlier.

As HHS operations experts and contractors raced to get online enrollment ready, it's unclear what level of detail Sebelius was privy to. As the deadline neared, her close staff was nervous but also increasingly optimistic that things would go well.

Many Republicans say this was supposed to be the easy part of the complex new law, a simple website where people could shop for health insurance and sign up for coverage. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Pat Roberts of Kansas and others have called for Sebelius to resign. Roberts, from her home state, voted for her confirmation in 2009 to lead HHS, but has now changed his assessment.

Facing a GOP primary challenge from a tea party candidate, Roberts this month accused Sebelius of "wasting taxpayer dollars on advertising and promotional tours" while Americans couldn't sign up for health care plans as promised.

Democrats are complaining, too. New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen called the website rollout "a disaster" and has asked Sebelius to extend the six-month enrollment period beyond the Mar. 31, 2014, deadline.

Sebelius is no stranger to politics; she grew up going door-to-door for her father's political campaigns. In 2008, as Kansas governor, she delivered the Democratic response to President George W. Bush's State of the Union. The next day, she endorsed Barack Obama for president. Sebelius was tapped by Obama to lead HHS in 2009 after his first choice, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, withdrew from consideration.

She has been considered a steady hand and no-nonsense administrator adept at reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans.

As she testifies this week, Sebelius' challenge will be explaining the huge website mess and restoring confidence amid its continuing problems.

Ron Pollack, a longtime health care advocate, has known Sebelius since the '90s when she was the insurance commissioner for Kansas.

"She's got abundant knowledge about America's health care system," says Pollack, head of the liberal advocacy group Families USA.

"Whether you agree or disagree with her on a particular issue, her style is open, friendly and warm," he said. "It makes it easy for people to have a thoughtful dialogue with her."

Pollack says he's not surprised by the Republican ire.

"We have seen unrelenting opposition to anything and everything to do with the Affordable Care Act," Pollack said. "If the problems get fixed and people get enrolled, this will be forgotten history."

___

White House Correspondent Julie Pace and health care reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

View Comments (128)