Washington Bureau

10.24.13

Congress Warms Up for the Sebelius Circus

Grilling contractors over the failures of the Obamacare website, members of Congress from both parties sharpened their knives for next week, when the HHS secretary will face the music.

There was finally bipartisan agreement over one aspect of the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, when lawmakers from both parties on the House Energy and Commerce Committee attacked two executives from the contractors responsible for building healthcare.gov over the website’s snafus.  In a political ritual almost as old as and deeply reminiscent of the human sacrifices practiced by the Maya, Cheryl Campbell, a senior vice president at CGI Federal, which was the lead contractor on federal health exchange and its website as well as Andrew Slavitt of Quality Software Services Inc, a subdivision of United Healthcare, were berated by lawmakers from both parties.

Congressmen didn’t just berate the contractors for incompetence, they also used them to score political points. When Democrats like Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes asked if the website failures had any connection to the underlying law, the contractors said no. Several Republican congressmen pressed the contractors on whether, if they were President Obama, they would have let healthcare.gov launch. Needless to say, the executives under question declined to put themselves in the President’s shoes.

There were plenty of partisan fireworks, too. After Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) claimed that part of the source code in the website violated federal health privacy laws under HIPAA, he provoked the ire of Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). Pallone thought that Barton’s question turned it into “monkey court,” arguing that since health information isn’t needed to enroll—as pre-existing conditions are irrelevant under Obamacare—HIPAA doesn’t apply.

But while the congressmen squabbled amongst themselves and berated the witnesses, this all felt like prelude. After all, contractors are easy targets and the failures of the federal exchange’s website are self-evident. The main event will be on October 30, when Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, testifies before the committee. Sebelius has already faced calls from a number of GOP lawmakers to resign. Her testimony may not be another “monkey court,” but it almost certainly will be a media circus.