WASHINGTON — Committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. got right to the point, declaring the Obamacare website is “still not working” as of Wednesday morning.
“It is the Verizon server that failed – not Healthcare.gov” declared Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in testimony Wednesday morning before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
She was referring to outages this weekend and again Tuesday, but was compelled to say “I apologize” for the disastrous performance of the Obamcare website since it’s Oct. 1 debut.
Sebelius also made sure to note, “I was not involved in the design of the website.”
And just as she claimed, “I would suggest the website has never crashed,” the website crashed.
While Sebelius was saying, “It is functional, but at a very slow speed and very low reliability, and has continued to function,” CNN showed a split screen of her and a live picture of the website, which had a sign clearly saying, “The system is down at the moment.”
Apparently unaware that the optics were contradicting her story, Sebelius soldiered on, claiming to be “as frustrated and angry as anyone” over the problem-plagued website, saying, “I am accountable to you,” the American people.
“The system isn’t functioning”
She expressed that frustration by actually joining the chorus of critics condemning the website she oversees.
“They [insurers] are not getting reliable data all the way through the systems,” testified the secretary.
“The system isn’t functioning, so we are not getting that reliable data. Insurers who I met with said that is the case.”
The secretary tried to excuse the disaster by saying, “No one would have imagined all the problems we’ve had.”
But, she said, an “extensive assessment” showed the website is “fixable” and that it “now has fewer error messages and timeouts.”
Who is responsible?
Sebelius backtracked under grilling by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., claiming, “I’m not pointing fingers at Verizon,” and “[W]e own the website.”
“Who was running the website?” asked Blackburn.
When Sebelius replied with the name of a subordinate, Blackburn asked if that person was responsible for the failure of the website.
Sebelius replied: "No, hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible."
Turned down help?
In fact, evidence has now emerged indicating the Obama administration turned down offers from Amazon and Microsoft to help fix the botched website.
Documents released Tuesday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee show two senior officials at HHS refused an offer of help from Amazon Web Services, Inc.
Microsoft also offered "technical expertise and assistance." The company did not say whether the administration responded to the offer, but it did say it has not provided any such assistance.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he wrote last week to eight technology companies asking whether they have participated in the "tech surge" the administration promised would employ the "best and brightest" minds in the tech world to fix the website.
Losing health care because of Obamacare
Blackburn also zeroed in on a problem with the potential to dwarf the website woes, the millions of Americans losing their health-care coverage because of Obamacare.
She referred to a report by NBC News that the administration has known for three years that millions of Americans would not be able to keep their health plans under Obamacare, despite repeated assurances by the president to the contrary.
Sebelius responded by citing a provision that if a plan was in place in 2010 and did not impose additional burdens, a consumer could keep it.
Chairman Upton interjected, "Why not let consumers decide?"
The secretary dodged the question, instead observing, "If someone is buying a policy today, they will have consumer protections for the first time."
However, those protections may be causing the problem.
Last week, the Weekly Standard reported that roughly 16 million Americans will lose their health insurance polices under Obamacare because insurance companies have to add benefits mandated by the health-care law. Most of the customers who re-enroll will have to pay much more for their insurance.
Sebelius was asked if she had asked how many people have enrolled in Obamacare and how many had tried to enroll.
She did not answer the question, but said, "Insurance companies are eager to get that data" and that "we do not have it yet."
Sebelius later said that information will be available in November.
'Why aren't you losing your insurance?"
One congressman who lost his health-care insurance confronted Sebelius in a fiery exchange.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., showed the letter canceling the insurance policy covering him and his family, then pointedly asked Sebelius, "Why aren't you losing your insurance?"
She replied she already had insurance.
“Why won’t you go into this exchange?” Gardner demanded of Sebelius.
The secretary responded that she is not eligible, because people who get "affordable" coverage through their employer cannot apply through the marketplace.
“I would urge you to be like the American people,” Gardner said.
A loud round of applause broke out and continued until the hearing was gaveled back to order.
Gardner tweeted: "My ins. canceled thx to Obamacare. Sebelius refuses to admit to a bait & switch. Millions will lose ins. they were told they could keep."
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., also had some pointed observations for Sebelius and spoke with some authority, as a former software developer.
"Look, I spent over two hours trying to get into the system. I never once got to a point where I could see a price. I did get kicked out many times and got some of those blank screens other people got," he began, echoing the frustration website users have experienced.
But, perhaps the more revealing moment came when he shared stories from his constituents, and Sebelius appeared to respond with either little concern for, or little awareness of, the plight of millions of ordinary Americans.
A Louisianan named Sean who wrote the congressman, "My current plan through United Healthcare is no longer being offered in 2014 due to Obamacare. In fact, I received a letter stating that the new health-care law was indeed the reason for the removal of my current health-care plan."
Scalise asked, "Madam Secretary, what would you tell Sean, who liked his plan and now has lost it? And he was promised by you and the president he'd be able to keep that plan. What would you tell Sean now that he's lost his plan?"
"I would tell Sean to shop in the marketplace and out of the marketplace and he will find competitive prices," Sebelius bluntly replied.
"Do you really think that's an acceptable answer to Sean?" asked Scalise.
The secretary then tried to blame the insurance company, saying, "If Sean, again if United chose not to keep Sean's plan in effect for Sean, a plan he liked ..."
"Because of the law," the congressman corrected her.
"Sir, the law said, if you keep Sean's plan in place, if he liked his plan, if you only apply trend lines to Sean ..." she tried to counter.
"But Sean likes his plan. And look ..." a clearly exasperated Scalise tried to explain.
"... then the plan is still there," she insisted, even though the congressman had begun by explaining that Sean had received a letter from his insurance company clearly stating he was losing his plan, and the plan was gone because of Obamacare.
Scalise tried another tack.
"You and I may disagree over who you work for. I work for Sean. You work for Sean, Madam Secretary. Sean lost his plan that he liked. And there are thousands and millions of Seans throughout this country that lost the plan they liked because some bureaucrat in Washington said, 'We think your plan is not good enough, even though you like it. Even though you were promised you could keep it you're now not able to keep that plan.'
"I think you deserve to give Sean a better answer than, 'You just have to go shop for something else,' even though you lost your plan."
Rep. Mike Rogers, R- Mich, asked Sebelius if there had been "end-to-end" testing of the website?
When Sebelius did not answer the question directly, Rogers asserted that if the website is not functioning, it is not secure. That, he said, put at risk the financial and personal information of those who had used the website.
Rogers said she had exposed millions of Americans to the possibility of having their information misused because, "according to your memo it was an 'acceptable risk.'"
Sebelius said, "Daily and weekly monitoring and testing is underway," but never fully responded.
That was partly because ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., interrupted a number of times to complain that Rogers was badgering Sebelius.
Indeed, Democrats often accused Republicans of harping on Obamacare's problems, with Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., complaining that they were "exaggerating every little glitch and hiccup."
From 'The Daily Show' to Congress
The secretary is taking the heat for the catastrophic roll-out of Obamacare, including a nearly $700 million website that has never worked properly and is in serious need of extensive, expensive repair.
Sebelius finally relented after initially refusing to testify.
GOP lawmakers were infuriated she went on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” but had decided not to appear before Congress.
HHS was even refusing to make lower-level officials available.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for Sebelius to resign, saying “the program she has implemented, Obamacare, is a disaster. It’s not working; it’s hurting people all across this country.”
Sebelius made clear in a Wall Street Journal profile last week that she had no plans to resign, but even some Democrats appear to be getting nervous.
“What has happened is unacceptable,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “There is much that needs to be done to correct the situation.”
Obamacare website on life support
Even President Obama has finally acknowledged that the Obamacare roll-out is a disaster, although one would almost have to read between the lines to find the admission.
Obama held a pep rally of sorts in the Rose Garden a week ago in which he initially downplayed the situation by acknowledging just “some problems with the website.”
He also insisted the Obamacare website is “still working for a lot of people.”
But Consumer Reports apparently disagrees, claiming it’s not worth the effort to even try using the website, for the time being.
“We tried it several times today and never succeeded in getting through,” the magazine reported.
Consumer Reports has tested the Obamacare enrollment website for the three weeks it has been up, since Oct. 1, and now advises customers to wait “at least month if you can” before trying it themselves.
“Hopefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they’ve made,” the magazine stated.
After initially trying to minimize the problems that even supporters acknowledge have plagued the website since it launched, the president painted a more serious picture, acknowledging there was “no excuse” for the barely functioning portal.
He admitted there was “no sugarcoating” problems that were “unacceptable,” including the now legendary slowness of the process to enroll for Obamacare online.
Obama even claimed, “Nobody’s more frustrated than I am,” and, “No one’s madder than me,” because the website is “not working as it should.”
He promised improvement and tacitly admitted a crisis with the website, promising the "surge” of technicians had been deployed to fix its numerous deficiencies.
The website that critics call both the worst and the most expensive in history cost taxpayers a reported $634,320,919 to build.
There’s no word yet on what Obama’s surge to fix the website might cost, but the New York Times reports it may take two months.
“These are not glitches,” an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange told the paper. The Times said the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity, not wishing to alienate the federal officials with whom he works.
“The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’”
Those fears appeared to come true when insurance companies reported the system was sending them incomplete and garbled applications, with either inaccurate or unusable information.
However, Obamacare may be facing even more dire dilemmas than the website disaster.
Obama had promised Obamacare would lower the cost on insurance, no one would lose their current insurance coverage and people could keep their doctors. But evidence to the contrary is piling up, as the Weekly Standard report that showed 16 million people will lose their health-care insurance because of Obamacare attests.
“It’s ironic,” Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, told WND last week.
“They said that they passed this bill to cover 30 million uninsured Americans. And it did the exact opposite. It kicked 16 million off the rolls, 16 million. So right now this bill has caused more damage to health care and has done the exact opposite of what the president promised.”
Additionally, if the government does not get enough people to sign up, experts say it will never work, because there simply will not be enough enrollees to pay for government-subsidized health insurance.
After much prodding, the White House finally released numbers over the weekend showing approximately 19 million people have visited the website and 476,000 individuals have applied online for health insurance.
But, perhaps tellingly, the administration has refused to disclose how many people have actually bought policies.
According to the Times, “Even some supporters of the Affordable Care Act worry that the flaws in the system, if not quickly fixed, could threaten the fiscal health of the insurance initiative, which depends on throngs of customers to spread the risk and keep prices low.”
The administration wants 7 million people to enroll during the six-month sign-up period.
The Associated Press obtained an internal Health and Human Services Department memo listing the administration’s monthly enrollment targets, including 500,000 in October and 3.3 million by the end of the year.
HHS declined to tell AP if it was meeting it’s projections. The agency even issued a statement claiming the administration “has not set monthly enrollment targets,” despite the fact AP already had the numbers.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth