WASHINGTON — Republicans blistered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday over the nation’s controversial health care law, bluntly challenging her honesty, pushing for her resignation and demanding unsuccessfully she concede that President Barack Obama deliberately misled the public about his signature domestic program.
During two hours in the Senate Finance Committee witness chair, Sebelius parried some thrusts and listened impassively to others. Treated more gently by Democrats than Republicans, she said at one point: “Clearly the opposition is still quite ferocious, and I’m just hoping that people understand what their options are, what their benefits could be and what their opportunities are.”
She offered few if any concessions about a program she pointedly observed “passed both houses of Congress, was signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court.”
Nor did she provide much in the way of new information about the launch of a website that she has conceded was deeply flawed. She disclosed that the so-called punch list for repairs had included “a couple of hundred functional fixes” at the time the administration launched its urgent rescue mission last month.
Even now, she said, “we’re not where we need to be.”
She added that the Web portal now is handling large volumes of material with fewer errors. However, as she testified, the website, www.healthcare.gov ., was running sluggishly, with some users encountering difficulty and others receiving error messages.
At a Dallas synagogue Wednesday, Obama assured volunteers that their efforts to sign people up for coverage would be well worth the trouble. “As challenging as this may seem sometimes, as frustrating as HealthCare.gov may be sometimes, we are going to get his done,” Obama said.
Just before leaving Washington, Obama met with 16 Democratic senators facing re-election in 2014 to discuss the troubled website rollout. They pressed him to extend the March 31 enrollment deadline, but White House press secretary Jay Carney rejected the idea.
Republican criticism and questions have turned in recent days into other areas, some blending policy and politics.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, one of Sebelius’ most aggressive questioners, read aloud from a page of the White House website that says: “If you like your plan, you can keep it and you don’t have to change a thing due to the health care law.”
Turning to Sebelius, he said, “Well, we know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately lying to the American people is not. I’d just like to ask you a simple true-or-false question. Is that statement on the White House website true or is it false?” Sebelius said, “Sir, I think the statement is that. …” before Cornyn cut her off.
“Is it true or is it false, Madame Secretary?” he asked.
She said “a vast majority” of people who are insured through their jobs would keep their plans and “a majority” of the 11 million in the individual market will keep plans with stronger coverage while “others will have to choose if they have to choose if they have a brand new plan and not a grandfathered — have to choose of a plan that they no longer get medically underwritten. …”
Cornyn responded, “I will just ask that the record … note that you have refused to answer my question whether it’s true or false.”
At the heart of his questioning was the recent flood of millions of cancellation notices that insurance companies have sent to individual policyholders, despite assurances dating to 2009 by the president that people would be able to keep their coverage if they liked it.
Several other Republicans also referred to the cancellations when their turn came to question Sebelius.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked if it violated Obama’s promise that so many plans were canceled for falling short of the law’s coverage requirements. Avoiding a direct response, Sebelius said, “For the vast majority of people who get employer-based health care, are in a public plan, are in the VA plan, are in Medicare, are part of the insurance market, their plans are very much in place. There is change coming in the individual marketplace with consumer protections that many people have never” had.
As senior Republican on the panel, Hatch led off. “While I’m glad that you are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with,” he said.
Rather than ask Sebelius questions, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas — the secretary is a former governor of the state — used his allotted time to raise numerous complaints about the law and her performance as the administration official in charge.
Roberts, who faces a tea party challenger in a bid for re-election next year, noted delays in parts of the law and said website woes have caused public uncertainty and fear.
“Your main goal should have been to protect Americans, to lessen their risk and to ensure their safety. But in your zeal to implement this law, not warnings, not advice, not counsel would deter you from implementing the exchanges,” he said. “You have said America should hold you for — accountable, which is why today, Madam Secretary, I repeat my request for you to resign.”
Sebelius did not respond.
Applicants’ ID security was another focus. Republicans said the administration put in jeopardy the personal information of Americans by taking the website live before security testing was fully completed.
“So not only can millions of Americans not log in to the website successfully, but those who have actually succeeded could now find themselves at the mercy of identity thieves across the globe,” said Hatch.
Sebelius said security issues were taken very seriously and “no one suggested that the risks outweighed the importance of moving forward” with the Oct. 1 launch date for the new insurance markets.
No major breaches have been reported, although in one publicized case the personal information of a South Carolina man was delivered to a website user who lives in North Carolina.
Broader security concerns have arisen because the part of the website that consumers interact with directly was not fully tested.
Federal law requires all government computer systems to have a security certification before going live. Yet on Sept. 27, Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, agreed to a temporary permit that said, “Aspects of the system that were not tested due to the ongoing development exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed as a high risk.”
Separately, officials said the chief information security officer at the agency, Tony Trenkle, who was involved in the decision to issue the certificate, is resigning to take a job in the private sector. CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille sidestepped questions about the reasons for the departure.