Live-blogging Kathleen Sebelius’ testimony

Good morning. Chairman Upton of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has just commenced today’s hearing in which Secretary Sebelius will testify. Here is my account of the proceedings:

9:04: Upton wastes no time in blasting Sebelius. “Malfunctions have become the norm,” he says, as he zeroes in the website glitches. He also mentions the problems of loss of insurance and sticker shock on the policies available on the exchanges.

9:06: Now it’s the turn of the Ranking Member, Rep. Waxman. He says the glitches on the website will be quickly forgotten, as happened with the Prescription Drug program. First impressions can be lasting impressions, though.

9:08: Waxman is waxing eloquent about the benefits that he says the ACA has conferred. He is setting the tone, I imagine, for his Democratic colleagues. They likely will go easy on Sebelius and help her play defense.

9:09: Waxman claims that the premiums on the plans being offered on exchanges are “unexpectedly low.”

9:11: Upton is going to swear Sebelius in pursuant to Committee procedures, as this is an oversight investigative hearing. Too bad no one swore President Obama in when he said folks could keep their health insurance plans if they like them.

9:14: Sebelius calls the early days of the roll out a “miserable experience.” She apologizes and promises to fix the problems. She says that HHS has determined that the problems are fixable and claims that performance has already been improved. “Fewer errors” and higher speeds.

9:15: Sebelius says she should be held accountable. But what does that mean? Will she take a pay cut?

9:19: It’s question time. Members will have only four minutes instead of the normal five. The idea is to minimize preambles and speeches, and focus on actual questions. Questioning at a congressional hearing — what a novel idea.

9:20: Upton promptly begins with a preamble.

9:21: He asks about an HHS regulation on grandfathering existing plans. Why were regs promulgated that undermine people’s ability to keep their plan, and was Obama informed about it?

9:22: Sebelius doesn’t really engage the question.

9:23: Waxman chides Upton for not asking about the website. He then launches into a speech about how the “gloom and doom” predictions of Republicans haven’t come true yet. He mentions the shutdown.

9:24: Will people who lose plans be able to get new ones? Yes, says Sebelius, they will be required to buy a plan. And they will have wonderful consumer protections which will give them health security — security they don’t have now and have never had before.

9:26: Waxman and Sebelius clearly have won Round One of this hearing, unfortunately.

9:27: Marsha Blackburn is up now. Has Obama kept his promise that if you like your health insurance you can keep it? “Yes,” Sebelius says, in a clear lie. They can get new plans, she notes.

Insurance companies cancel plans all the time, Sebelius notes. But Obamacare has induced mass cancellations.

9:29: Blackburn says the site isn’t working as we speak. Someone in the back of the hearing room is trying to log on, and not succeeding.

9:30: How much has HHS spent so far on the web site? About $118 million plus $56 million more on “support.”

9:31: Who was in charge of the site? Michelle Snyder, says Sebelius. So Snyder is responsible? No, says Sebelius, I am responsible.

9:32: John Dingell is up now. I saw him on this Committee in the mid-1960s. He was feisty then and he’s still feisty. Not quite as sharp these days, but he could still play for my team.

9:34: Dingell wants to know what can be done to punish the insurance companies who are cancelling insurance policies. This is a clever way to make it sound like the insurance companies are the culprit.

9:35: He claims that insurance companies are misleading consumers into staying with them and buy more expensive policies.

9:37: Joe Barton is up. He reminds Sebelius, the former Kansas Governor, that we’re not in Kansas any more. We’re in the Land of Oz, he suggests.

9:38: Barton focuses on privacy concerns. The website says that users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

9:39: This is boilerplate language that shouldn’t have been used, Sebelius says. But Barton notes that it’s still there. Will Sebelius commit to taking it out and to assuring privacy? Yes, she answers. They are in the process of removing the statement. But if this really was a mistake, why has it taken so long to fix?

9:41: Barton wants to give people a pass from being fined for the first year, given the problems on the system. “No,” says Sebelius.

9:42: Rep. Pallone (D-NJ) claims all that’s going on is that insurance companies are cancelling “lousy policies” that aren’t viable in a competitive market. But these are policies many people would like to keep. And it’s not a free market that’s making these policies non-viable; it’s the requirements imposed by Obamacare.

The Republican members need to rally. The Dems are taking all sorts of liberties and not being called on them.

9:45: Now it’s Rep. Hall from the Republican side of the table. He asks whether Sebelius was born in Kansas (he says he thought he saw her riding a tricycle there in the third grade). Whatever.

Sebelius is actually from Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the daughter of former Rep. John Gilligan, who served on this Committee.

So far today Republican members have been lame compared to the Committee Dems.

9:52: Does Sebelius have “full confidence” that the website will be fixed by Nov. 30? She hems and haws a bit, then says she has confidence.

9:55: Rep. Shimkus, a Republican, asks whether she would advise Obama to stop saying if you like your insurance you can keep it. Sebelius evades the question and Shimkus moves on.

Shimkus blasts the website for giving misleading information on prices — mismatching prices and ages. Sebelius has no answer.

10:01: Rep. Engel, a Democrat from New York, asks what the consequences of repealing Obamacare would be. No big deal, says Sebelius — I’m kidding. Actually, she testifies that the consequences would be dire.

10:02: Engel asks: How have “Republican tactics” hurt HHS’s ability to make Obamacare work? Sebelius says that Obamacare is the law. Engel adds that “Republicans are on the wrong side of history.” He may be right in a sense, though not with respect to Obamacare.

10:04: Rep. Pitts (R-PA) wants to know if Sebelius has gone through the process of using the website. She says she has not, since she has affordable health care.

10:06: Pitts asks about the testing and wonders whether Sebelius was aware of recommendations that the launch be delayed. Sebelius was not. Clearly, she should have been.

10:08: Rep. Green, a Democrat from Texas, expresses some disappointment that Sebelius rejected an invitation to visit Houston to check things out. He also criticizes the delay, saying that Nov. 30 isn’t soon enough to fix the website.

Green is the first Democrat to be at all critical of the roll out.

Green and Sebelius point out that, under the grandfather provision, people can keep their plan if it was in existence when the law was passed and doesn’t change. But no insurance plan stays exactly the same year after year.

10:13: Rep. Walden (R-OR) reminds Sebelius of her prior statements expressing full confidence in the system, pre-launch. Sebelius admits that more testing was needed.

Sebelius says that the grandfathering protects plans even if they change prices and benefits. Walden doesn’t have enough time remaining to pursue this matter.

Republican members are losing this portion of the debate, in my opinion.

10:20: Rep. DeGette (D-CO) tries to drive a wedge between Sebelius and the main contractor. The Secretary says it isn’t helpful to play the blame game. In her position, that would be my position too.

10:22: Rep. Terry (R-Neb.) says his state insurance commissioner has received no data about the number of Nebraskans who have enrolled in Obamacare or tried to (Nebraska doesn’t have an exchange). He also says the commissioner has no information about who the Obamacare navigators in his state are.

Sebelius says she doesn’t have info on enrollees. Terry responds that contractors say they have the numbers. Sebelius switches up and says the data exists, but isn’t reliable. Therefore, she won’t share it.

Terry says the contractors’ testimony doesn’t support her claim that the data is unreliable.

Terry scored on this point, in my opinion.

10:27: Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) claims that those states whose governors have embraced Obamacare (by establishing exchanges) are experiencing success with it. She cites California, New York, and Kentucky. The state exchanges are working.

Sebelius says she doesn’t have numbers, but from what she hears the state exchanges are working well.

10:30: Rep. Mike Rogers (R. Mich.) is up now. He asks technical questions about “hot swapping” of codes, etc. Sebelius can’t answer basic “yes or no” questions about this; nor can she whether “end-to-end security testing” has occurred. She doesn’t know. Rogers says it hasn’t because they are still changing code.

Rogers blasts Sebelius for lack of end-to-end testing, which put people’s personal information at risk. Very powerful.

Rogers is the head of the House Intelligence Committee, so he knows this stuff inside-out. His questioning has been devastating, as is evident from Waxman’s decision to jump in to try and protect Sebelius. Until now, she has needed no help.

10:37: Rep. Doyle (D-Penn.) says, correctly, that enrollment by the young is crucial. He also asks about the expected pace of enrollment in the first month. He notes that experience (from Mass. and with prescription drugs) shows that such enrollment is always low. But he worries that the young, who tend to be impatient, won’t come back to the site.

He has put his finger on the problem. He says he had to prod his son — a 34-year old, so not so young — to go back on the website after it didn’t work for him the first time.

10:43: Rep. Murphy (R-Penn.) asks what information Sebelius has about the number of people who will lose their plan and about the number who will be able to get a new plan by the Jan. 1, 2014 deadline. Sebelius is unable to say that she has a mechanism in place for tracking this.

Your federal tax dollars at work.

10:46: Rep. Butterfield (D-NC) follows up on the lack of security testing. He says that, although there was no end-to-end security testing, there has been “mitigation testing” to help ensure security. Sebelius agrees. He helps “rehabilitate” Sebelius on this issue. Too bad Rep. Rogers won’t get another crack at Sebelius.

10:50: Rep. Burgess (R-Tex.) points to a CNN report that the website was hacked just lack week. Sebelius says she doesn’t know about this.

Burgess notes that Mr. Zients, the “glitch czar” refused to testify before the Committee in connection with Solyndra.

Burgess asks whether Sebelius will ask for the resignation of Gary Cohen for repeatedly misleading the Committee. Sebelius, of course, says she will not. I wrote about Cohen’s testimony before the Oversight Committee (regarding navigators) here.

10:59: Rep. Gingrey (R-Ga.) is back on the topic of people losing their insurance. But he’s reading a prepared statement, not responding to the arguments Sebelius and the Committee Dems have made today.

Now he asks about the “hardship exemption” to Obamacare. Can people apply for such an exception? Sebelius doesn’t know. Gingrey says they can’t. This is better from him.

Will Sebelius grant a hardship exemption to people who lose their insurance due to Obamacare? No, she will not.

11:05: Rep. Donna Christensen (D-VI) asks about the claim that Obamacare is driving employers into cutting hours and making employees part-timers. Sebelius claims there is no data supporting this claim. She says that the prevalence of part-time employment is decreasing. Some fact checking is in order here.

11:08: Rep. Scalise (R-La.) asks whether the testimony of the contractors that they delivered the systems they contracted with HHS to deliver is true. Sebelius can’t say. That’s weak.

What would Sebelius tell people who complain that they like their plan but can’t keep it. Sebelius would tell them to shop around. As a song lyric this works; as public policy, not so much.

11:19: Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) notes that the less complicated Medicare.gov website required months of testing. Yet, there were only two weeks of testing for the Obamacare website. Was it acceptable to go forward with the website under these circumstances?

Sebelius dodges the question by stating the advantages she saw in the Oct. 1 launch date.

11:22: Rep. Bruce Braley (D.Iowa) becomes only the second Dem to express anything approaching dismay over the lemon that is the Obamacare website (Rep. Green of Texas was the first). He goes on to tout the “wonderful things” Obamacare will do, but says they can only occur if the website works. So he asks for her degree of confidence in the Nov. 30 fix-it date. Sebelius is equivocal.

Will she support extending the sign-up deadline? No. People will still have four months, and that should be enough.

11:28: Rep. Harper (R-Miss) asks whether President Obama is ultimately responsible for the roll out. Sebelius says “no.” She is responsible. Good answer. It makes sound “stand up” even as she sucks up to her boss.

11:30: Amazing! Sebelius denies that the market place for health insurance was really a market place before Obamacare passed because it was unregulated. This testimony encapsulates the liberal view of market places.

11:34: Rep. Lujan (D-NM) asks what Congress can do to help make sure the website works. Her answer, in essence, is: cheer lead. The Committee Democrats seem well up to that task.

11:37: Chairman Upton is limiting members to two minutes of questioning now. Sebelius should have little trouble running out the clock now.

11:39: But wait! Rep. Lance (R.NJ) asks a very telling question on the issue of what changes in policies will negate “grandfathering” of old plans. He asks about a report that a $5 change in a co-pay would cause a plan to lose its protection and cause someone to lose that plan. Sebelius can’t deny this. Instead, she bobs and weaves.

11:42: Rep. Cassidy (R.La.) follows up on Lance’s line of questioning. He says that a $1 dollar change in co-insurance would negate grandfathering. Sebelius now admits that Rep. Lance’s $5 increase in co-pay is accurate.

Cassidy asks what HHS will do if only the “costly” sign up for Obamacare. Sebelius can’t say that she has any backup plans. Instead, she says she will encourage less costly people to sign up. She may have to go door-to-door.

11:45: Rep. Yarmuth (D-Kent.) asks whether things would be going better if more Republican governors had authorized state exchanges. I think it’s clear that the more Obamacare can rely on states, the less it will rely on the feds. And the less one relies on the feds, the better things will run. There’s a lesson here.

11:50: Jan Schakowsky ( Socialist-Ill.) is up now. She tells Republicans to “get over it” when it comes to Obamacare. Thanks, Jan.

The only reason I noted her questioning is to get the Socialism reference in. She actually goes under Democrat label.

11:57: Rep. Barrow (D-Ga) — who voted against Obamacare — wonders about the risk pool and the need for healthy people in it. Will the technical problems undermine the ability to bring in healthy people? Given the two minute limit on questioning, Sebelius is able to run the clock out on this important line of questioning.

11:59: Rep. McKinley (R-WVa) asks whether the contractors are going to be paid for their faulty systems. Sebelius says they haven’t been paid yet, and we’ll see. The actual answer is “yes.”

12:04: Rep. Gardner (R-Colo.) says his family lost its health insurance plan. Why will Sebelius not join an exchange? She says she’s not eligible to enter. It would be illegal for her to do so, she insists. Gardner disagrees. Someone will have to fact check this dispute.

12:07: Jim Matheson (D-Utah) is up. Mia Love will be running against him again, I understand. The Obamacare roll out may help her get over the hump this time.

Matheson’s questions for Sebelius are lackluster. For political reasons, he can’t engage in liberal posturing like most of the other Dems. But he doesn’t go after the Secretary either.

12:10: Mike Pompeo (D-Kan) asks why the plans Kansans have were good enough when she was Kansas insurance commissioner and governor, but are “lousy plans” and “not true insurance” now. She responds that, indeed, some of those plans weren’t true insurance plans.

This is the heart of the debate. For conservatives, plans that provide insurance that people are satisfied with are inherently desirable. For liberals, plans that they — not those insured but liberals — don’t like are lousy and don’t even rise to the level of “true insurance.”

With that, I will sign off — the hearing will end in 15 minutes.

In my view, Sebelius, assisted by the Committee Dems, did better than I expected. The senior Democrats seemed better prepared than the senior Republicans.

Until deep into the hearing, Sebelius was able to defend the view that its the fault of insurance companies that people are losing their policies. Republicans finally showed that extremely minor, inevitable, changes in policy provisions force people to lose their insurance notwithstanding the grandfathering provisions of Obamacare. So the loss of insurance policies is an inherent feature of Obamacare.

And, as others have reported, the White House knew this all along.

Although Sebelius did well today, the roll out fiasco stands. Wisely, she did not try to talk her way out of it. The fiasco remains a major black-eye for the administration and its signature program.

The big questions now are: (1) will the administration meet its self-imposed deadline of Nov. 30 for fixing the website, (2) how many healthy folks will enroll, and (3) on balance, will folks who are in the exchanges be satisfied with the plans being offered to them.

If the answer to any of these questions (but especially the second and third) is adverse to the Democrats, they are in big trouble.

Responses