Sebelius maintained a cool and composed manner as she served as the sole witness before the influential House panel that has jurisdiction over healthcare. She acknowledged from the outset that access to HealthCare.gov has been a frustrating experience for too many Americans, many of whom she said have waited years for the security of health insurance coverage.
"I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of Healthcare.gov," she said. "So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems and I'm committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site."
HHS will do that by late November, she said, when the administration projects the website will be running smoothly. As CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner told the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, that decision is based on an assessment from experts who have identified the problems and how long it will take to fix them. In responding to questions from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Sebelius said she is confident in getting the problems fixed by late November. "I know the only way I can restore confidence is to get it right."
The technology problems plaguing the new health insurance exchanges make it impossible to provide the numbers of Americans enrolled so far with the new coverage, Sebelius told lawmakers. “The system isn't functioning, so we are not getting that reliable data,” Sebelius said during the hearing. “I don't want to turn over anything that is not confirmed and reliable.”
Even as Sebelius testified, HealthCare.gov experienced more technical malfunctions. Julie Bataille, director of CMS' office of communications, told reporters in a call later that Verizon Terremark—the company that operates the data center that hosts the HealthCare.gov website and data services hub—experienced a temporary outage Tuesday night that the CMS believes is related to the same issue that caused an outage on Sunday. As a result, by Wednesday afternoon, the data hub was able to support the state marketplaces but not the federal marketplace, meaning the federal online applications were not fully functional.
Sebelius was questioned about the testing before the launch, which Sebelius acknowledged repeatedly was inadequate. But even though the testing was insufficient, she said, CMS, HHS and the private contractors all believed that HealthCare.gov would be ready to go live by the start date and no one advised a delay.
"I was informed that we were ready to launch on Oct. 1. The contractors who we had as our private partners told us and told this committee that they had never suggested a delay and that is accurate," Sebelius said. "Our CMS team felt we were ready to go. I told the president that we were ready to go. Clearly, I was wrong. We were wrong," she continued. "We knew that in any big, new complicated system there would be problems. No one every imagined the volume of issues and problems that we've had and we must fix it."
She was also pressed about the decision not to include a "shop and browse" feature on the federal site. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, said a representative for contractor CGI Federal testified last week that the company was told to turn off that feature ahead of the launch. Many experts have cited this as a major flaw, as users were forced to create an account first, which resulted in a host of problems.
"They paired down some of the features, feeling that it would be better to load them in later," Sebelius said, referring to the decisions the CMS made under Tavenner's direction. "One was the shop and browse feature, another was the Spanish version of the website and the Medicaid transfers—all three of those issues were paired down in September to not load the system."
Sebelius also reiterated what other administration officials have already said: The CMS and its tech team are working on a list of fixes to improve the site's performance and functionality.
"I met with insurers last week and one of the priority fixes is the so-called 834s—the document that sends an individual's name to a company and verifies it," Sebelius said. "That is one of the systems that isn't working."
Meanwhile, House Republicans hammered Obama's earlier assertion that Americans who like their health plans can keep them. A number of GOP members cited letters from disgruntled and confused constituents who have received notices about discontinued health plans from their insurers. Lawmakers cited the Washington Post's Fact Checker column, which gave the president's promise "four Pinocchios."
Sebelius responded that under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's grandfather clause, plans in effect in March 2010 don't have to comply with the law's insurance regulations unless the carrier makes changes “burdening the consumer with reducing benefits and adding costs.”
As GOP lawmakers criticized the rollout, Democrats on the panel questioned the sincerity of their conservative colleagues, noting House Republicans have tried more than 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act and are now laser-focused on making sure the federal website is a success. "I'd urge my colleagues to stop hyperventilating," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee's ranking member. "The problems with HealthCare.gov are unfortunate, but they will be fixed."
Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told Sebelius he looks forward to having her appear before the panel again in December, at which time he expects her to have "real numbers" on how many people have enrolled in coverage. Sebelius said she would have those figures in mid-November.
Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter: @MHjzigmond