Healthcare.gov site down again; HHS Secretary Sebelius faces grilling

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans said Sunday they intend to press Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the Obama administration's troubled launch of healthcare.gov, the online portal to buy insurance — even as the website suffered yet another setback.

A component of the online system that has been working relatively well experienced an outage Sunday. The federal data services hub, a conduit for verifying the personal information of people applying for benefits under the law, went down in a failure that was blamed on an outside contractor, Terremark.

"Today, Terremark had a network failure that is impacting a number of their clients, including healthcare.gov," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said. "Secretary Sebelius spoke with the CEO of Verizon this afternoon to discuss the situation and they committed to fixing the problem as soon as possible."

Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, of which Terremark is a part, said: "Our engineers have been working with HHS and other technology companies to identify and address the root cause of the issue. It will fixed as quickly as possible."

The Obama administration will face intense pressure this week to be more forthcoming about how many people have actually succeeded in enrolling for coverage in the new insurance markets. Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner is to testify during a House hearing Tuesday, followed Wednesday by Sebelius before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The officials will also be grilled on how such crippling technical problems could have gone undetected prior to the website's Oct. 1 launch.

"The incompetence in building this website is staggering," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the second ranking Republican on the panel and an opponent of the law.

Democrats said the new system needed time to get up and running, and it could be fixed to provide millions of people with affordable insurance. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said the system was "working in Kentucky," a state that has dealt with "some of the worst health statistics in the country. ... The only way we're going to get ourselves out of the ditch is some transformational tool," like the new health insurance system.

Blackburn said she wanted to know much has been spent on the website, how much more it will cost to fix the problems, when everything will be ready and what people should expect to see on the site. Blackburn and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., raised questions of whether the website could guard the privacy of applicants.

"The way the system is designed it is not secure," said Rogers, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

The administration sought to reassure applicants about their personal information. HHS' Peters said when consumers fill out their applications, "they can trust that the information they're providing is protected by stringent security standards and that the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure."

The botched rollout has led to calls on Capitol Hill for a delay of penalties for those remaining uninsured. The Obama administration has said it's willing to extend the grace period until Mar. 31, the end of open enrollment. That's an extra six weeks. The insurance industry says going beyond that risks undermining the new system by giving younger, healthier people a pass.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is seeking a yearlong delay to the penalty for noncompliance, said his approach would "still induce people to get involved, but it will also give us the time to transition in. And I think we need that transition period to work out the things." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has urged the Obama administration to postpone the March 31 deadline, said she was concerned applicants would not have a full six months to enroll.

The administration was under no legal requirement to launch the website Oct. 1. Sebelius, who designated her department's Medicare agency to implement the health care law, had the discretion to set open enrollment dates. Officials could have postponed open enrollment by a month, or they could have phased in access to the website.

But all through last summer and into early fall, the administration insisted it was ready to go live in all 50 states on Oct. 1.

The online insurance markets are supposed to be the portal to coverage for people who do not have access to a health plan through their jobs. The health care law offers middle-class people a choice of private insurance plans, made more affordable through new tax credits. Low-income people will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand that safety net program.

An HHS memo prepared for Sebelius in September estimated that nearly 500,000 people would enroll for coverage in the marketplaces during October, their first month of operation. The actual number is likely to be only a fraction of that. The administration has said 700,000 people have completed applications.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the president had been poorly served by Sebelius "in the implementation of his own signature legislature. So if somebody doesn't leave and if there isn't a real restructuring, not just a 60-day somebody come in and try to fix it, then he's missing the point of management 101, which is these people are to serve him well, and they haven't."

Blackburn spoke on "Fox News Sunday," Beshear appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rogers was on to CNN's "State of the Union," Manchin was interviewed on ABC's "This Week," and Shaheen and Issa made their comments on CBS "Face the Nation."

Associated Press

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius takes part on a panel to answer questions about the Affordable Care Act enrollment on Friday.

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Comments

Bob White's picture

Is it true?

Is it true that the company they hired knew the Obamas? Is it true that the company they hired also had failed at least twice in Canada? This is getting smelly but don't worry like everything else the President didn't know of any of this like every other problem he has faced.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Is it true

I don't know if it is but it seems to me that I would generally hire somebody I know over somebody I don't. Does Governor Lepage tend to put people in office and hire people that he knows and that support his views? It sure didn't help that wind power company that they weren't part of the "in" crowd. Seems like Republicans are again trying to start something where there is no substance.

Bob White's picture

Goggle it you will see its

Goggle it you will see its true. Its one thing to hire them if they are successful. Claire I'm sure you would put a spin on it even after you find out its true. Maybe its Bush's fault.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Web sites

When a network is suddenly overwhelmed with too much traffic bad things happen. This is nothing new. Phones go down in a disaster because everybody gets on at once. It makes no sense from an economic point of view to build networks to accommodate every one at once when normal traffic is may be one third of that. It doesn't mean we should all throw away our phones. They will fix it. And by the way in their fuming and foaming at the mouth Republicans should be remembering the launching of Medicare Part D under President Bush and cool their jets. That was not exactly what you would call slick either. What it does indicate is that people really want to sign up badly. That is the source of their anxiety over the glitches and I don't doubt for a moment the deadline will be pushed back to give them plenty of time to comply. Oh, and as for Sebelius ? Not a shining star maybe but a regular Einstein compared to our own Mary Maheu.

CAROLYN LIBBEY's picture

Mr. Obama is ultimately

Mr. Obama is ultimately responsible for this fiasco--that's why he is called "Commander"-in-Chief. But I'm sure he isn't going down without several others on his coat tails.

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