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Sebelius: Web contractors did it

By Jay MacDonald · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Posted: 12 pm ET

Not us -- them.

That was the gist of testimony from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who appeared before a contentious House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing to explain the woefully botched rollout of the federal Obamacare health insurance exchange website at HealthCare.gov.

Recognizing that site access "has been frustrating for many Americans," Sebelius hailed the tsunami of public interest in the first-ever online marketplace and blamed the balky website on private contractors who failed to adequately prepare for the onslaught of traffic.

"To build the marketplace, (the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) used private-sector contractors, just as it does to administer aspects of Medicare. CMS has a track record of successfully overseeing the many contractors our programs depend on to function. Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations," she said in a prepared statement.

Probing the 'train wreck'

At least three Republican-controlled House committees have fired up investigations of the troubled website, which GOP opponents claim constitutes the "train wreck" they've long predicted for President Barack Obama's landmark health care reform legislation.

Wednesday's all-morning hearing on the tangled website quickly detoured into an alternating good cop/bad cop interrogation between Democratic defenders and Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act, often on tangential aspects of health care reform. Amid the acrimony, the poised, unflappable Sebelius often was relegated to a nonspeaking minor role, and her attempts to answer were frequently cut short by Republican committee members.

What about the cancellation notices?

Several Republican members grilled Sebelius on reports that insurers are dropping thousands of individual policyholders and/or offering to renew their policies at higher premiums, in direct contradiction of President Obama's promise that "if you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan."

Sebelius explained that health plans in effect before Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010 were automatically "grandfathered" in, and nothing in the law takes that coverage away. While insurers are free, as they've always been, to alter and even discontinue coverage -- which is guaranteed for only one year -- Sebelius says they can't force consumers into a higher-priced alternative.

"That is an insurance company choice. This isn't a government takeover of anything," she said. "No one is rolled over into a plan. Having said that, customers for the first time have a lot of choices because they can't be locked out of coverage. There is no rule that you have to stay with your company or be rolled over."

Sebelius: Things will get better

Sebelius was grilled but allowed only brief comment on other features of health care reform, including privacy, plan coverage of birth control and abortion, whether she supports calls to extend the deadlines for Americans to obtain health insurance (she doesn't), and even whether she would recommend the firing of key supervisors of the HealthCare.gov site (she won't).

Asked what would have happened if attempts to block Obamacare had succeeded, Sebelius had numbers in hand: "Estimates of the Congressional Budget Office are that it would have increased the deficit by about $110 billion in the first decade and close to $1 trillion in the second decade," she replied.

Back on topic, does Sebelius have 100 percent confidence that the retooled HealthCare.gov site will be ready for prime time as promised by Nov. 30?

"I do," she replied. "I know that the only way I can restore confidence that we (can) get it right is to get it right. I have confidence, but I know that it isn't fair to ask the American public to take our word for it. I've got to fix this problem, and we are underway doing just that."

Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus.

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Jay MacDonald is a Bankrate contributing editor and co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook," an e-book by Bankrate editors and reporters.

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