WASHINGTON — “It’s impossible to do something in this administration that gets you fired. Impossible!” thundered Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
He had asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to explain during a Senate hearing why the administration knew for years that Obamacare would cause millions of people to lose their health care insurance, yet President Obama continued to say otherwise.
She began to give the same explanation the president tried to offer Monday, that people could keep their health plan “if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,” a caveat he had never offered in the many years he had been making the claim.
‘True or false?’
The senator cut her off and demanded to know, “Is it true or false” that people could keep their plans?
When she began to dodge the question by referring to the “vast majority of Americans” Cornyn declared, “I will just let the record show you refused to answer my question.”
Earlier, he asked her rhetorically why lying to Congress was a crime but lying to the American public was not?
“Most Americans believe in grace but you and the President of the United States have been misleading the American people!” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., exclaimed.
The secretary’s fellow Kansan, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was even more to the point, saying she should lose her job.
Request for resignation
He accused her of ignoring warnings about Obamacare problems in order to protect the White House, “and as a result, you have put our entire health care system and one-sixth of our economy in jeopardy.”
“You have said America should hold you accountable,” Roberts oberved, “Which is why, today, Madame Secretary, I repeat my request for you to resign.”
Even Democrats sympathetic to the health care law were bluntly critical of its catastrophic implementation.
‘Shut it down’
“Why not shut it down – and do it right?” wondered Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
He lectured Sebelius that the performance of Obamacare is “unacceptable.”
The secretary refused to consider a delay of the law, which is to go fully into effect on Jan. 1.
She said a delay was not necessary because the open enrollment period for Obamacare insurance marketplace runs through March. “There’s plenty of time to sign up for the new plans,” she claimed.
The last time Sebelius appeared before his committee, Baucus said he feared the rollout of Obamacare was heading for a train wreck.
It turned out the Democrat was right, as the Obamcare website has barely functioned since it debuted Oct. 1.
Baucus said he was disappointed to hear members of the administration claim they didn’t see it coming.
“When we asked for updates the responses were unsatisfactory,” he complained. “We were told everything on track, but that was obviously not the case.”
The Democrat also warned her, “There is no room for error,” and “It’s a two-way street. You have to tell us what’s going on candidly and fully.”
Ranking member Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said many of his requests to Sebelius for updates on the Obamcare website went ignored.
He said he wants her to come before the committee once a month for the next six months.
‘Time for a timeout?’
Senators were not just critical of the website, they also focused on problems with the law.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, strongly challenged an assertion by Sebelius in her opening statement that, despite the website failure, Obamacare “has delivered on the product: quality, affordable health insurance.”
“We are seeing millions lose their health care and millions more are seeing their costs going up,” said an incredulous Crapo.
Sebelius claimed that some health insurance premiums have dropped in Oregon, New York and Washington, D.C.
Contradicting her, Crapo noted premiums were “phenomenally higher” than promised, nationwide.
“Isn’t it time for a timeout?” he asked, saying it’s not just the website, but “the law is not working.”
‘Premiums are skyrocketing’
“Why are we seeing premiums go up and not down? Why are we seeing policies cancelled?” he demanded to know, adding, “I don’t know what data you are using. The data I am seeing shows that premiums are skyrocketing.”
Sebelius replied she respectfully disagreed and, “I didn’t say they are going down, I am saying rates are lower than was predicted.”
She also tried to to indicate there was a strong demand for Obamacare, claiming the website had 20 million visits and 700,000 applications, but she still refused to say how many people have actually enrolled.
She said those numbers will be revealed next week.
Only three enrolled in Alaska
Evidence indicates the numbers will be strikingly low, in part, at least, because of the disastrous performance of the website since it was launched.
Documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee show only six people successfully enrolled in Obamacare on the federal website on its first day.
Enrollment may not have gotten much better over the rest of the month.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, revealed on Tuesday that only three people in her state had signed up as of Oct. 29.
At the very end of the hearing, Hatch delivered a note of concern and warning.
The senator referred to a previous statement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that Obamacare is only a step to single-payer system, a socialized form of health care that would eliminate private insurance companies and put the government in charge of all health care in America.
Hatch said that worries not only Republicans but many Democrats as well.
The senator said the reason he didn’t like the health care law isn’t because he is a Republican but, because “I don’t think it’s going to work wihout costing America and arm and a leg, and without taking people’s health care away.”
He asked Sebelius, why not just focus on covering the 15 percent of Americans who did not have health insurance coverage, “instead of jumbling the whole system?”
She did not answer and the hearing ended.
Cornyn’s inference that the administration was lying to the American people was in reference to the president declaring dozens of times since 2009 that people could keep their current health care insurance under Obamacare.
Former AP Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier called that a lie, then said Obama is trying to cover it up with another lie.
“The man who promised to run the most transparent administration in history participated in a lie,” wrote Fournier.
After falling under intense criticism, the president tried to backtrack in a speech Monday.
“Now, if you have or had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,” Obama said.
As for that explanation, Fournier said, the president “is now misleading the public about his deception.”
As evidence, he cited Obama’s speech to the American Medical Association, June 15, 2009, during the debate over health insurance reform:
“That means that no matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”
Fournier also noted that Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler “gave Obama four Pinocchios for the you-can-keep-it whopper, repeated countless times by Obama.”
“The president’s statements were sweeping and unequivocal—and made both before and after the bill became law,” Kessler wrote.
Still not working
Sebelius made her initial attempt to explain the Obamacare rollout disaster last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. got right to the point, declaring the Obamacare website was “still not working” as of Wednesday morning.
“It is the Verizon server that failed – not Healthcare.gov” declared Sebelius.
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 appeared to be getting nervous.
“What has happened is unacceptable,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “There is much that needs to be done to correct the situation.”
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth