Sebelius in the Hot Seat

Facing down questions with an icy calm, the health secretary admitted that the Obamacare rollout has been a disaster. But her critics didn’t get any of the answers they wanted.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

With Republicans calling for her resignation, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did her best to defend the integrity of the Affordable Care Act, apologizing for its rocky rollout and promising the American people it will be fixed by the end of November. “You deserve better,” she said. “I apologize.”

It didn’t help her cause that was down for the entire time she testified Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce committee. Lawmakers pointed that out intermittently throughout the three and a half hours of her testimony, and as the hearing drew to a close, Republican Kathy McMorris Rodgers announced the federal portal was “still down. This is more than a broken website; this is a broken law.”

Sebelius kept her cool under a barrage of often hostile questioning. The troubled website was the least of it. Republicans had a new front from which to assail the law: complaints from constituents that insurance companies were terminating coverage that didn’t comply with Obamacare. Millions were receiving letters, and several lawmakers said they set up websites for Americans disgruntled with Obamacare to relate their stories. The Washington Post’s fact checker awarded President Obama 4 Pinocchios for saying repeatedly that Obamacare would not disrupt anybody who had insurance, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.”

Turns out that is not true for the five percent of Americans who buy insurance on the individual market. Plans bought before the ACA passed are grandfathered in, but newer plans are subject to the whims of insurance companies. “It’s not that the president misled anyone,” said Democrat John Yarmuth, noting these are business decisions made by private insurance companies, not some government takeover. Sebelius countered that people receiving these letters can go on the exchanges and find a plan that in many cases will be more affordable and provide better coverage—but the Republicans were having none of it.

“Why aren’t you losing your health insurance?” Colorado Republican Cory Gardner demanded, waving a letter that he and his family received cancelling his insurance policy. “Why aren’t you in the exchange? Why won’t you go into the exchange—should you be any different from all these Americans?” Sebelius responded that she’s not eligible for the exchange because she has affordable coverage through the federal government. That didn’t satisfy Gardner who said she could choose to opt out of her coverage and join Obamacare. “I would encourage you to be just like the American people,” he said to a smattering of applause in the hearing room.

He held up a poster depicting college kids at a keg party, which the Colorado state exchange is using to encourage enrollment in Obamacare. He wanted to know if Sebelius thought it was appropriate. She said she couldn’t see it from across the room, and besides, she’s not involved with an individual state’s marketing. “Pretty big font; pretty big keg,” Gardner muttered, yielding his time after one final demand. He wants a state waiver from Obamacare for the 4th district of Colorado.

It was only a matter of time before someone made the analogy to Kansas, where Sebelius served as governor and insurance commissioner before joining the Obama administration. Invoking the Wizard of Oz, Republican Mike Pompeo noted they worked hard to go down that yellow brick road, and there was nothing there they didn’t already have. When you pull the curtain back on Obamacare, he said, same thing. “Why were these plans good enough when you were insurance commissioner and governor, and they’re not good enough today?” Sebelius said a lot of the policies being discontinued “are not true insurance.”

Vermont Democrat Peter Welch interjected that a lot of insurance companies were “ripping off” the American people with insurance that is good until they get sick. But House Republicans, who have voted more than 40 times to repeal Obamacare, cannot be assuaged with assurances that Americans will be better off in the long run. If Obamacare is so great, why isn’t Sebelius signing up? How can she justify “forcing” other people to do something she holds herself exempt from? “Come on in, the water’s fine,” needled Billy Long, a Missouri Republican, successfully baiting California Democrat Henry Waxman, who couldn’t restrain himself from asking if Sebelius were able to do what his colleagues were asking, which is to go on the exchange and buy an individual policy, would it protect her from “cheap shots.”

If Sebelius caught the sarcasm in Waxman’s question, she didn’t let on, saying, “I would gladly join the exchanges if I did not have affordable insurance.”

Pressed for enrollment figures, Sebelius said she would not have reliable numbers until mid-November, fueling suspicion that people were having sticker shock and not signing up. While Sebelius acquitted herself well enough, taking the battering with an icy calm, the ultimate fate of Obamacare rests with the seven million Americans the program must sign up by March of next year, including some two million healthy young people, whose participation is essential to spread the risk and make the numbers work.