Congressional Obamacare Hearings: ‘We’re Not in Kansas Anymore’

When Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took the stand in her testimony before the House of Representative’s Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday morning, Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, told her “you gotta use that mic,” as she reached for the microphone. “You don’t know how many people want to hear you this morning.” Indeed, her long-awaited comments on the glitch-plagued launch of the cornerstone provision of the Affordable Care Act, the online marketplaces, began with the apology that many had been waiting to hear.

“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of healthcare.gov,” Sebelius began, temporarily diverting from her prepared statement. “You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing this problem, and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.” Her apology rings with the same sentiment as guided President Barack Obama’s speech in the Rose Garden of the White House last Monday, when he said that, “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should.”

Returning to the prepared statement, she then listed a series of improvements the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, has made since the online insurance exchanges went live on October 1. Additional IT staffers have been brought on, the site has been updated several times with new code that included “bug fixes,” and additional capacity has been added so that the the virtual “waiting room,” which has caused so many problems, could be removed.

But often times an apology is not enough, and in the case of the error-riddled federal website, healthcare.gov, lawmakers wanted more from the HHS secretary, who Upton called the president’s point person on health care. The expressed purpose of the congressional hearing was address the issues of transparency and fairness, qualities that have been absent from the implementation of the health care reform law.

“Today’s hearing is about fairness for the American people who are losing their coverage or seeing their premiums skyrocket as high as 400 percent,” read Upton’s prepared testimony. “This hearing is also about transparency. While the administration continues to boast the number of Americans that have “applied,” they intentionally withhold precise enrollment numbers. Why? These numbers are critical to fully understanding the status and gauging progress of implementation.”

However, as with Tuesday’s questioning of the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Marilyn Tavenner, lawmakers took the opportunity presented to press Sebelius on a wide range of issues related to the rollout — from the partisanship of congressional politics to premium prices to the cancellation of private-market insurance policies.

To characterize the hearings broadly, there were two schools of thought. On the one hand, supporters of the health care reform law chided their anti-Obamacare counterparts for asking accusatory and leading questions of the secretary that did nothing to remedy the situation.

But on the other hand, those lawmakers who believe that the website’s technical problems illustrate a level of unacceptable incompetence pursued a line of questioning dealing primarily with how the secretary and her colleagues could repeatedly look members of Congress “in the eye” and testify that “everything was on track” despite numerous red flags, as Upton inquired. There was even a certain level of bipartisan agreement in that area, as evident by the liberal use of references to the Wizard of Oz on both sides of the aisle.

“There is a famous movie called the Wizard of Oz, and in the Wizard of Oz there is a great line,” said Representative Joe Barton, (R-Tex.), beginning his questioning. “Dorothy at some point in the movie turns to her little dog Toto and says, ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’” He proceeded to tell Sebelius, who was a two-term governor of Kansas, that she too was “not in Kansas anymore.” In fact, “some might say that were are actually in The Wizard of Oz-land, given the parallel universes we appear to be habituating.” Similarly, Representative Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), said later, “We’re not in Kansas. We’re in Oz.”

Their point being that the Obama administration and various officials, including Sebelius, describe one reality while news reports have indicated another. Policies for thousands of Americans are being cancelled, contrary to what the president promised during the Affordable Care Act campaign, and many Americans are finding their coverage to much less affordable than expected.

As Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) said when the characters in the Wizard of Oz got to the end of the yellow brick road and “pulled back the curtain,” what they found was nothing special or magical. The case in point are the insurance policy cancellations. Upton said that, “There are millions of Americans coast to coast who no doubt believed the president’s repeated promise that if they liked their plan, they’d be able to keep it. They are now receiving termination notices.”

But Sebelius maintained that the cancellation of policies was a justifiable side effect of the health care reform because the new policies will give Americans better benefits and more consumer protections. “In the individual market, plans change[d] every year,” she said, adding, “This market has always been the Wild West.”

The other issue that dominated the hearing was why the federal website and the federally-facilitated exchanges were not tested more thoroughly. The extent of the technically problems is undeniable, so when Representative Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania wondered whether two weeks was long enough to test healthcare.gov, Sebelius said, “Clearly not.” However, the why the system was not tested adequately was not forthcoming. Confidential government documents obtained by the New York Times showed that the main contractor, the CGI (NYSE:GIB) unit CGI Federal, warned the Obama administration that there would be problems with the website.

“Due to the compressed schedule, there is not enough time built in to allow for adequate performance testing,” CGI said in a report sent to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on September 6. That report warned that it was a “near certainty” that the company would not have enough time for testing. Yet when the senior vice president of CGI Federal, Cheryl Campbell, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee four days later, she reassured lawmakers that lawmakers that the website would be functional.

“We were told repeatedly that implementation was ‘on track,’ and it is now time for all those responsible to explain what happened,” Committee Chair Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said in a statement made last week. While Sebelius that the comprehensive testing of the website was inadequate, Tavenner said that she was surprised by the problems that crippled the federal website on October 1. “We had tested the website and we were comfortable with its performance.” Like Tavenner, Sebelius claimed the administration could not say how many people had enrolled in health plans via the federal exchanges. The numbers will be disclosed once a month starting in mid-November, she said.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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