Senate Committee Grills Sebelius Over Health Law
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington, D.C.
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And I'm Audie Cornish, this week at NPR West in California. It was a second grilling today on Capitol Hill for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She faced House members a week ago. Today, she appeared before the Senate Finance Committee. Lawmakers took her to task for the botched rollout of healthcare.gov. But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, the Senate, controlled by Democrats, also cut Sebelius some slack.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Since the bungled launch of the healthcare exchanges, congressional Democrats have had a dilemma: How do you admit the White House really messed this one up and still insist the healthcare exchanges are a splendid idea? Committee Chairman Max Baucus opened the hearing saying, right off the bat, the last few weeks have been totally embarrassing and unacceptable, but...
SENATOR MAX BAUCUS: Make no mistake, I believe in this law. I spent two years of my life working on the Affordable Care Act. There is nothing I want more than for it to succeed.
CHANG: It was supposed to be a hearing about what went so wrong with the rollout of the healthcare exchanges, but Senate Democrats kept tossing bone after bone to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, giving her lots of chances to remind Americans about the virtues of the law.
Sherrod Brown of Ohio prodded her to talk about the law's legacy.
SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: What are people going to say about the Affordable Care Act in five years and in 48 years?
SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Well, I'm hopeful that this will be another significant step forward in assuring that all Americans have access to affordable health coverage, which is not what we can claim today...
CHANG: To be sure, there were plenty of questions about possible security risks posed by the website and all the delays people have faced when trying to sign up. Sebelius disclosed that the site needed a couple hundred fixes, and Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida said as someone who fought and bled to get the healthcare law passed, he wants to see the contractors who designed the exchanges feel some pain.
SENATOR BILL NELSON: I want you to burn their fingers and make them pay for not being responsible and producing a product that all of us could be proud.
CHANG: Sebelius pointed out a number of improvements to the site. Pages are loading within one second instead of several. Filtering through health plans, which used to take minutes, now takes seconds. And fewer error messages are popping up. Great, said Republican John Cornyn of Texas, but that still doesn't solve another problem.
He pointed to the White House website, which he said was still insisting that you could keep your health plan if you like it, despite news reports that people across the country were getting cancellation notices.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Well, we know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately lying to the American people is not. I'd just like to ask you a simple true or false question. Is that statement on the White House website true or is it false?
SEBELIUS: Sir, I think the statement is that you can keep your plan...
CORNYN: Is it true or is it false, Madam Secretary?
CHANG: Sebelius wouldn't give him a one-word answer, so Cornyn switched gears, jumping to the Obamacare navigators. These are people hired to educate the public about how to enroll. Cornyn was concerned these navigators didn't undergo federal background checks.
CORNYN: So a convicted felon could be a navigator and could acquire sensitive personal information from an individual unbeknownst to them.
SEBELIUS: That is possible.
CHANG: Other committee members spent their entire question time not waiting for answers, like Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas.
SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: So I have to wonder if you have any regrets, any regrets at all, that you failed to heed the warnings, that you ignored the calls from members of Congress, you proceeded to open the exchanges on October 1.
CHANG: He never let Sebelius respond and ended his few minutes calling for her resignation again. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.
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