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Sebelius defends Obamacare to Senate Committee

HHS Secretary Sebelius told a Senate committee that Obamacare should not be delayed, while the president took his sales pitch to Texas.
Barack Obama, Edna Pemberton
President Barack Obama hugs Edna Pemberton before speaking with volunteers at Temple Emanu-El Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, in Dallas.

The government's health care website is an inexcusable mess--and neither President Obama (speaking in Texas) nor Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius (testifying to the Senate Finance Committee) tried to defend it.

But that doesn't mean the sign-up deadline should be extended any further, or that the health care reform law itself is flawed.

Republicans and some Democrats are calling on the Obama administration to extend the open-enrollment period or delay the individual mandate in light of the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told senators that is not an option.

“People’s lives depend on this,” she said on Wednesday

“Delaying the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t delay people’s cancer, or diabetes or Parkinson’s…mental health services or cholesterol screenings or prenatal care. Delaying the Affordable Care Act doesn’t delay the foreclosure notices for families forced into bankruptcy by unpayable medical bills. It doesn’t delay the higher costs all of us pay when uninsured Americans are left with no choice but to rely on emergency rooms for care,” she added.

In Dallas Wednesday evening, Obama urged Texans to push GOP Gov. Rick Perry--a ferocious opponent of the Affordable Care Act--to expand Medicare. "It's a no-brainer," he said: there's no state in the country "that actually needs this more than in Texas."

The Lone Star State has one of the highest uninsured rates in the country at 28.8%. 

"As challenging as this may seem sometimes, as frustrating as may be sometimes, we are going to get his done," Obama said.

The Senate Finance Committee hearing became heated when Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas hammered Sebelius about Obama having repeatedly told Americans that if they like their current health plan they can keep it. Since then, some insurers have sent cancellation notices to customers whose current policies don’t meet the coverage standards of the law.

Cornyn asked Sebelius whether Obama’s statement was true or false. When she would not directly answer, Cornyn interrupted and said, “My time is limited” and insisted the record reflect that Sebelius refused to answer his question. At one point the exchange got so tense that the committee's chairman, Max Baucus of Montana, had to jump in.

Sebelius’ testimony comes exactly a week after she was grilled by the Republican-run House and Commerce Committee. During those remarks, she apologized to the American people, telling them “you deserve better” and promised that the glitches on the website –which took years to build and cost hundreds of millions of dollars -- would be fixed by the end of the month.

The ranking member on the Senate committee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, scolded Sebelius for not being “honest with us to begin with.” He pointed to a hearing in April in which he said Sebelius claimed the program was on track. The Republican said her actions were ”inexcusable” and asked Sebeilus to meet with the committee once a month for the next six months to update them on the status of HealthCare.Gov.

Baucus said that while the glitches were “unacceptable,” it was time to move forward. The Democrat, a chief author of the 2010 law, noted several Republicans have called for Sebelius’ resignation and warned that there’s “no room for error. You must meet, and I prefer you beat, that deadline.”

Even Baucus asked Sebelius why they shouldn't delay the site itself instead of “limping along.” Sebelius responded that the site was “not fatally flawed” and that her department was advised that it wouldn’t gain much by taking the entire system down. Instead, she said, it was better to do routine upgrades, especially during overnight hours when traffic to the site is lower.

Sebelius insisted there has been progress in the five weeks since the site launched. While it used to take eight seconds for pages to load, today it takes “typically less than a second.” While viewing plans used to take minutes, now they take seconds, she added. While consumers used to see a blank screen at the end of the application process, they are now able to see if they qualify for financial assistance. The site is able to process 17,000 registrants per hour and users are receiving fewer error and time out messages, she said.

When asked about enrollment numbers, Sebelius said they would be out next week. In another embarrassing blow, the House Oversight and Government Reform committee acknowledged last week that just six people signed up for insurance on its first day. By the morning of Oct. 3, there were just 248 enrollees.

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