HHS Head to Testify on Troubled Website Rollout

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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — As the public face of President Barack Obama’s signature health care program, Kathleen Sebelius has become the target for attacks over its botched rollout. Republicans want her to resign and even some Democrats — while not mentioning Sebelius — say someone should be fired.

    The secretary of Health and Human Services has been lampooned on late-night comedy shows, from “The Daily Show” to “Saturday Night Live,” in which a stand-in Sebelius last week offered tips to people having trouble signing into the new health care website: restart your computer, send a postcard to Washington with the word “help” or buy an airline ticket to Canada.

    For months, Sebelius had projected steady confidence that the online health insurance markets would open Oct. 1 as scheduled in all 50 states and that a website that’s the key to public enrollments would be ready. How much she knew about the website’s problems, and when, are key questions she’ll face Wednesday at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

    So far she appears to have Obama’s backing. Officials sat Sebelius, one of his longest-serving Cabinet secretaries, in the front row of the audience at a Rose Garden health care event last week — a symbolic signal that she remains a central part of the president’s team. She also is helped by Obama’s general reluctance to fire people quickly, particularly in the face of political pressure. White House officials frequently say the president works on a different timetable than much of Washington and doesn’t see the benefit of symbolic firings.

    Firing her could be seen as an admission from the White House that the website woes are an indication of broader flaws in the health care law.

    Sebelius has acknowledged that the launch has been “rockier than we would have liked.” Obama agreed, saying last week that the site has been “too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.”

    The program’s website, HealthCare.gov, is still plagued by technical problems that make it difficult — if not near impossible — for people to sign up for health insurance.

    Host Jon Stewart put the problems in perspective for many when Sebelius was a guest on his “Daily Show” recently.

    Whipping out his laptop, he told her: “I’m gonna try and download every movie ever made and you’re gonna try and sign up for Obamacare and we’ll see which happens first.”

    Andy Slavitt, representing contractor Quality Software Services, Inc., told Congress last week that his company relayed concerns to the government prior to the disastrous launch. Exactly what those concerns were, and who heard them, remains unclear. The major website contractors said testing of the entire system didn’t occur until a couple weeks before going live, and they would have preferred to have done it months earlier.

    As HHS operations experts and contractors raced to get online enrollment ready, it’s unclear what level of detail Sebelius was privy to. As the deadline neared, her close staff was nervous but also increasingly optimistic that things would go well.

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