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Sebelius apologizes over website launch ‘debacle’ but contends it is secure

October 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius faced hours of questioning on Capitol Hill over the flawed HealthCare.gov launch. Sebelius accepted blame for the site's issues and apologized to Americans, saying: "You deserve better." Kwame Holman reports on the security and enrollment concerns voiced by lawmakers.
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GWEN IFILL: The secretary of health and human services was called before Congress today to defend problems with the new health care overhaul. Kathleen Sebelius said the program’s website has been a debacle, but she also faced a host of other questions.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

MAN: Do you swear that the testimony you’re about to give is the truth?

KWAME HOLMAN: For Secretary Sebelius, the first order of business before the Energy and Commerce Committee was mea culpa.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. Health and Human Services: I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of healthcare.gov. So, let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. I am accountable to you for fixing these problems, and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Sebelius faced new questions that go beyond technical problems on the website. They involve a government memo showing, before the site launched on October 1, Medicare officials worried inadequate testing left it vulnerable to security breaches.

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Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan:

REP. MIKE ROGERS, R-Mich.: You allowed the system to go forward with no encryption on backup systems. They had no encryption on certain boundary crossings.

You accepted a risk on behalf of every user of this computer that put their personal financial information at risk because you didn’t even have the most basic end-to-end tests on security of the system. Amazon would never do this. ProFlowers would never do this. Kayak would never do this. This is completely an unacceptable level of security.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sebelius contended the website is secure and that additional measures are being taken.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Authorization to operate on a permanent basis will not be signed until these mitigation strategies are satisfied. It is under way right now. But daily and weekly monitoring and testing is under way.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sebelius acknowledged overall testing of the website was rushed, but said that she believed potential problems had been addressed.

REP. JOSEPH PITTS, R-Penn.: Do you believe that two weeks was enough time to complete testing of the entire system?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Clearly not.

JOSEPH PITTS: And when were you made aware of the result of the tests, including the one where the system collapsed with only a few hundred users?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Leading up to the October 1 date, we had regular meetings with not only a team at CMS, but administrators involved. I was made aware that we were testing, and, as we found problems, we were fixing those problems.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans also pressed again for numbers, namely, how many people have been able to enroll for insurance in light of the technical issues.

REP. LEE TERRY, R-Neb.: Will you on the record right now authorize them to give us those numbers and let us determine whether those are reliable?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: No, sir.

LEE TERRY: All right.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I want to give you reliable, confirmed data from every state and from the federal marketplace. We have said that we will do that on a monthly basis by the middle of the month. You will have that data. But I don’t want to turn over anything that is not confirmed and reliable. And that’s what we will do.

LEE TERRY: Well, but that data out there exists, and you will not let us have it now.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Sir, I would tell you right now it is not reliable data. According to the insurance companies who are eager to have customers, they are not getting reliable data all the way through the system. That’s one of the real problems that we have.

(CROSSTALK)

KWAME HOLMAN: At the same time, Sebelius acknowledged initial enrollment numbers are likely to be low.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Well, our projections prior to launch were always that there would be a very small number at the beginning. We watched the Massachusetts trend, which started slowly and built.

I think there’s no question that given our flawed launch of healthcare.gov, it will be a very small number.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Democrats, including Lois Capps of California, pointed to the relative success of state-run exchanges. And they challenged Republican critics to meet the demand for affordable health insurance.

REP. LOIS CAPPS, D-Calif.: The governors and legislators, state legislators, that embraced this law are delivering for their communities. But those elected who are trying to ignore the opportunities presented and continue to throw up roadblocks both here in Congress and in state legislatures shouldn’t now seem surprised that there are significant bumps along the way. This seems to me to be completely disingenuous.

KWAME HOLMAN: In today’s testimony, Secretary Sebelius didn’t address calls by some Republicans that she resign. She promised again the website will be fixed by November 30. And she took on the criticism insurance companies are canceling thousands of existing policies, despite the president’s pledge individuals could keep their plans if they wanted to. In other words, they’d be grandfathered in.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: We outlined the grandfather policy so people could keep their own plan. We then began to implement the other features of the Affordable Care Act. So if someone is buying a brand-new policy in the individual market today or last week, they will have consumer protections for the first time.

But if, again, a plan is in place and was in place at the time that the president signed the bill and the consumer wants to keep the plan, those individuals are grandfathered in, and that’s happening across the country in these individual markets.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sebelius said only about 5 percent of Americans were affected by cancellations, a claim rejected by Republicans, who questioned her repeatedly on the issue. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said many policyholders have simply been left in the lurch.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN, R-Tenn.: What do you say to Mark (ph) and Lucinda (ph) in my district who had a plan, they liked it, it was affordable, but it is being terminated and now they do not have health insurance?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Insurance companies cancel individual policies year in and year out. They’re a one-year contract with individuals. They are not lifetime plans. They’re not an employer plan.

(CROSSTALK)

MARSHA BLACKBURN: It’s what they wanted, and I will remind you, some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari. And some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem. You’re taking away their choice.

MAN: Hearing is adjourned.

KWAME HOLMAN: Toward the end of the hearing, the White House released a statement, saying President Obama has complete confidence in Secretary Sebelius.