Sebelius: ‘I apologize, I’m accountable’ for Obamacare website flaws

Obamacare latest: Sebelius on the hot seat
(CNN) — Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius strongly apologized for the botched launch of the government’s Obamacare website before a congressional panel Wednesday.

She promised that a “vast majority” of consumers will be able to shop online for health insurance under Obamacare by the end of November without the problems currently being reported, even as the website was down once again.

“In these early weeks, access to HealthCare.gov has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans, including many who have waited years, in some cases their entire lives, for the security of health insurance,” Sebelius said before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.gov,” she said. So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems.”

The secretary also admitted to having made a mistake when she told the President that the website was “ready to go.”

“Clearly, I was wrong. We were wrong,” she said.

Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan opened the hearing by saying news about the President Obama’s signature health care reforms “seems to get worse by the day,” adding that “Americans are scared” and “may be losing their faith in the government.”

However, Sebelius said Obamacare has delivered on its central promise to provide affordable health care.

Thousands of people have been able to access the website to look at new health coverage options, she said.

She echoed the same stance the administration has taken — that a team of experts is scrambling to fix the errors.

Pressed as to whether the Obama administration lied when it said that those who liked their current insurance policy would be able to keep it, Sebelius said the President kept his promise.

People who bought their own health coverage before Obamacare was signed into law in 2010 can keep those policies if they choose under a “grandfather” clause included in the legislation, she said. Those who like their health care plan can keep it, relying on the technicality that the coverage must predate the law, she said.

Sebelius was responding to a question about people having their policies canceled.

She said the troubled Obamacare website has cost $174 million so far, including $56 million for technological support.

Sufficient preparation?

Some of the criticism of the website’s launch has to do with what the administration knew and when it knew it.

CNN has learned the administration was given stark warnings just one month before the launch that the federal health care site was not ready to go live, according to a confidential report.

The caution, from the main contractor CGI, warned of a number of open risks and issues for HealthCare.gov, even as company executives were testifying publicly that the project had achieved key milestones.

Sebelius, however, said the outside contractors that built the website never recommended delaying the October 1 launch.

She did admit that “we did not adequately do end-to-end testing” of the website and that various components “were not locked and loaded into the system” until mid-September.

The contracts with the private companies working on the Obamacare website do not have any “built-in penalties” allowing her department to charge them for disappointing or faulty work, Sebelius said. However, she said the agency will not pay for incomplete work.

Security questions

Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, accused Sebelius of putting the private information of Americans at risk by failing to properly test security measures on the website.

“This is a completely unacceptable level of security,” he said, adding, “you know it’s not secure.”

Sebelius said testing occurs regularly and told Rogers she would get back to him on whether any end-to-end security test of the entire system has ever occurred. Rogers responded that he knows there have been no such comprehensive security tests.

An internal government memo, obtained by CNN on Wednesday and written just days before the website opened, warned of a “high” security risk because of a lack of testing of the website.

“Due to system readiness issues, the (security control assessment) was only partly completed,” said the memo from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “This constitutes a risk that must be accepted and mitigated to support the Marketplace Day 1 operations.”

Earlier congressional questioning

Invited to testify last week, Sebelius put it off for travel related to efforts promoting enrollment in new health insurance exchanges under Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

One of her lieutenants — Marilyn Tavenner, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services unit that oversees the HealthCare.gov website — became the first government official to face congressional questioning on Tuesday at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing full of fiery partisan clashes.

Tavenner offered the first administration apology for the delays, error messages and other problems faced by Americans who have tried to sign up for health insurance on the website for the past four weeks.

But she also insisted the online troubles were being resolved and the overall program was working, albeit slower and less successfully than hoped.

In an exclusive interview with CNN last week, Sebelius said Obama didn’t know of the problems with the Affordable Care Act’s website until after the troubled launch. This was despite the fact that insurance companies had been complaining and the site crashed during a pre-launch test run.

CNN’s Joe Johns and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.

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