Democrats’ Frustrations With Health Law Grow Amid Website Problems

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a Senate hearing Wednesday that officials were advised to keep healthcare.gov open while fixing problems and also fielded criticism of President Obama’s promise that if Americans like their old health plans they can keep it. KHN’s Mary Agnes Carey and CQ HealthBeat’s Rebecca Adams discuss.

>> Click here to listen to the discussion.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Welcome to Health on the Hill. I’m Mary Agnes Carey. Key Obama administration officials were on Capitol Hill again this week facing tough questions from Republicans and Democrats about the troubled rollout of healthcare.gov.

With us now to discuss those hearings is Rebecca Adams of CQ HealthBeat. Rebecca, thanks for joining us.

REBECCA ADAMS, CQ HEALTHBEAT: Thanks for having me.

Democrats' Frustrations With Health Law Grow Amid Website Problems

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius answers questions about the error-plagued launch of Healthcare.gov while testifying before the Senate Finance Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 6, 2013 in Washington (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

MARY AGNES CAREY: Today Department of Health and Humans Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius appeared before the Senate Finance Committee. Yesterday, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Both of these witnesses also appeared last week before House panels to talk about the problems with healthcare.gov. Did you hear anything new in the Senate hearings?

REBECCA ADAMS: A lot of the hearings were repetitive. We heard a lot of what we had heard before in the House hearings. But CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner got my attention when she said yesterday that the administration expected about 800,000 people to be enrolled between October and November. Those were the early projections that the administration had had before all these problems came to light, and Administrator Tavenner confirmed that the actual numbers will be released next week.

Secretary Sebelius followed that up today and she said that the administration had projected about 1 million people would enroll through the end of December and that was according to an internal memo they had put together. But she said those projections are being updated because of all these problems that we’re seeing and the massive problems with enrollment. And Secretary Sebelius said that when the numbers that are released next week come out they’ll include some breakdowns that I think people will find useful. They’ll have some state-by-state numbers, and they’ll have a breakdown of how many people are enrolling in Medicaid and how many people are in the private plans in the new marketplaces. 

MARY AGNES CAREY: Some Democrats on both panels seemed to be really growing frustrated with the rollout of the website. What are some of their concerns?

REBECCA ADAMS: We saw a lot of concerns from Democrats who supported this law and want it to work. We saw Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland in the Senate HELP Committee yesterday saying we have a “crisis of confidence.” She wanted to know what the administration was going to do to try to get young people back because after all those are the people that are needed to keep premium rates affordable. And Sen. Patty Murray [Democrat of Washington] said that she worries about outreach from the administration to people with individually purchased plans that are being canceled by the insurance company. And I also found it striking today that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, who was one of the key people in getting this law passed, said that he was really looking for more candor from the administration and more information. That’s something we’ve heard a lot from Republicans and we’re increasingly hearing it from Democrats, including some of the Democrats that spoke last week at the House hearings. So, certainly there’s a lot of pressure building on the administration.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Baucus also asked today why HHS doesn’t just take the site down and fix it. What does Secretary Sebelius say about that?

REBECCA ADAMS: Secretary Sebelius said that they had looked at that issue and that they were advised by their technical advisers to move through it. She said that there were a couple hundred items that they needed to fix and that the good news was that everyone told them, including independent people that they brought in their so-called “tech surge,” that Healthcare.gov is fixable but that it was better to just go ahead and try to power through and try to make all those fixes on their punch list.   

MARY AGNES CAREY: Senate Republicans on both committees hammered away at the president’s pledge, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it.” How did Tavenner and Sebelius respond to that?

REBECCA ADAMS: You’re right! That was a good question. We heard a lot of Republicans pose this question to her: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, in the health committee; Orrin Hatch of Utah, Jon Cornyn of Texas, Mike Crapo of Idaho; and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, they were all pushing this point because we’ve heard about so many people who were getting these cancellation notices from their insurance companies.

And the notices say that you’re not going to have insurance as of January 1st and that makes people very nervous, especially people who have trouble getting onto the website or who are having trouble enrolling. The response from the administration has been: Well, we certainly have tried to make it so that people who did have insurance as of March 23, 2010 can keep those plans if they are exactly like they were on that day. The insurance companies had some leeway to change the plans. They could change the premiums, for example, and very modestly change the copays. But if they made major changes, then those were out.

So the administration’s response is that through this grandfathering regulation, that that is the thing that they had put in place to try to keep to that promise that people could keep their plans.

MARY AGNES CAREY:  For our last question: There were a lot of concerns about some of the steps that the administration says it’s taking to fix healthcare.gov. From what you heard, is it clear that the site will work for most users as of Nov. 30, which is what the administration has said repeatedly?

REBECCA ADAMS:  Every day the administration is doing calls with reporters to give us updates. And every day they’re telling us that it will be ready by the end of November, and that every week we’re going to see improvements.

But remember last week the site was down for parts of three days. We’re continuing to see problems and outages, and so it remains to be seen how much better it will be. Certainly we expect improvements, but I think that there’s a lot of pressure on the administration to get this right. But still we’ve seen the problems before and we’ll just have to see how it goes.

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Thank you Rebecca Adams of CQ HealthBeat.