WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) --Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebeliusapologized to Americans Wednesday for the troubled rollout of thenational health care law and its dysfunctional website.
"Youdeserve better," Sebelius said as she began her testimony to the HouseEnergy and Commerce Committee. "I apologize. I'm accountable to you forfixing these problems."
As Republican calls for herresignation grow louder, Sebelius is getting intense grilling from thepanel - which is hearing from the embattled health care secretary forthe first time since HealthCare.gov went live on Oct. 1.
"Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible,"Sebelius said after a heated exchange with Rep. Marsha Blackburn,R-Tenn., about who was in charge of the website.
Asked for an accounting of federal dollars, Sebelius said the government so far has spent $118 million on the website and $56 million more on "IT support" for the site.
Sebelius' testimony comes the day after MarilynTavenner, the director of the Centers for Medicare and MedicaidServices and the Obama administration official closest to the website'smanagement, apologized for the botched rollout before a different Housepanel.
In her opening remarks, Sebelius also soughtto place some of the blame on government contractors building thewebsite who "have not met expectations." She told the committee thatthere was not adequate "end-to-end testing" of the website, saying therewas about two weeks of testing.
HealthCare.gov hasbeen shaky since its debut on Oct. 1, when open enrollment began underthe Affordable Care Act. The law, which passed with no Republicansupport, was signed by President Obama with great fanfare in 2010 as akey to overhauling the nation's complex health care system and providinginsurance to millions of people who are currently without suchcoverage.
Obama has stood by Sebelius, a former Kansasgovernor, and has embarked on his own campaign to tout the law'sbenefits and move away from the website debacle. The president willspeak Wednesday afternoon in Boston, to illustrate the success ofMassachusetts' health care law - the basis for the Affordable Care Act.
JeffreyZients, a former White House budget deputy, said the site will be fixedby Nov. 30. Sebelius' prepared testimony said HHS has updated thewebsite's technology with new code and help from experts inside andoutside of government.
Sebelius said Wednesday that she feels goodabout the Nov. 30 date, noting that the department's assessment is thatit will take that long for HealthCare.gov to be "an optimallyfunctional" website.
"I have confidence ... but I know it isn't fair to the American people to take my word for it," she said. "I have to fix this."
Butuntil HealthCare.gov gets a clean bill of health, congressionalRepublicans are sure to keep using the website as a focal point in theirarguments that the law is an unwieldy and costly example of governmentintrusion. The GOP-led House has tried 40 times to repeal the law, to noavail.
At times throughout the hearing, Republicans alsobrought up the cancellation notices that some individuals have receivedabout their insurance. Blackburn and others sought to tie thosecancellations to Obama's promise during the legislative fight overhealth care that Americans with insurance would be able to keep suchcoverage under the law.
Asked if he is keeping his promise,Sebelius said, "yes, he is." She noted that insurance companies oftencancel policies and that those will be replaced with new and betterpolicies available under the law.
The hearing also delved into thesecurity of the website. Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and G.K.Butterfield, D-N.C., read from an internal government memo that Rogerssaid showed the site had not received enough testing for security issuesand that it "exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed as arisk."
The memo recommended addressing those risks, conductingdaily tests, monitoring of the site for security issues and a fullsecurity test within two to three months. Sebelius said all of thoserecommendations are being followed and that the site is secure.
Sebeliussaid they did not conduct more extensive testing because they did nothave time. The contractors said they were ready to go ahead, she said.
Whilethe administration says more than 700,000 people have created accountsto buy insurance on state and federal health exchanges since Oct. 1,Tavenner and other officials have not disclosed how many people haveactually enrolled through the online network.
Sebeliusacknowledged in her testimony that the number of enrollees through theonline exchange would probably "be a very small number of people" forthe first month of its existence, especially given the website'sproblems. But she said that is to be expected, and noted thatMassachusetts experienced similar enrollment issues when its law tookeffect in 2006.