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Sebelius: Hold Me Accountable For Debacle


On Capitol Hill today, many lawmakers got what they'd been waiting for: a chance to take their swipes at the woman they blame for the troubled rollout of the new health care law.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee for three and a half hours. And as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, Sebelius acknowledged technical problems with the health care website, but also stood her ground.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: In the scramble for someone to blame for a hobbling website, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has, for weeks, become a pinata for lawmakers. Today, sitting alone at a table in a pale, gray suit in front of 52 House members, Sebelius began with an apology.


SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems.

CHANG: But that's where her apologies ended. She staunchly defended the health care law, rejected the idea of extending the enrollment deadline, and glowed optimistically about how the website was vastly improving day by day. Republican Joe Barton, of Texas, said such confidence reminded him of "The Wizard of Oz."

REP. JOE BARTON: And in "The Wizard of Oz," there is a great line. Dorothy, at some point in the movie, turns to her little dog, Toto, and says, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. Well, Madam Secretary, while you're from Kansas, we're not in Kansas anymore. Some might say that we are actually in "The Wizard of Oz" land, given the parallel universes we appear to be habitating.

CHANG: And one outcome Republicans said they were horrified to find at the end of the yellow brick road, were cancellation notices for many individual insurance policies across the country. Plans that don't offer the benefits required under the new law are being phased out, except for some people who signed up for the plans before March 2010, when the law was enacted. House Republicans mocked President Obama for assuring Americans they could definitely keep their insurance plans if they wanted to.

REP. CORY GARDNER: Here's my letter. This is the letter that my family got canceling our insurance.

CHANG: Republican Cory Gardner, of Colorado, asked Sebelius why the president broke his promise.

GARDNER: Why aren't you losing your insurance?

SEBELIUS: Pardon me?

GARDNER: Why aren't you losing your health insurance?

SEBELIUS: Because I'm part of the federal employees ...

GARDNER: Why aren't you in the exchange? You're in charge of this law, correct? Why aren't you in the exchange?

CHANG: Over and over, Sebelius said the canceled policies would be replaced with better policies at better prices. And she said that people will have more choice than they ever did in the individual insurance market, which she said used to be like the Wild West. Democrat Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, called the fixation on canceled policies just another red herring.

REP. FRANK PALLONE: What I think my colleagues on the other side forget is that this is not socialized medicine. This is, in fact, private insurance in a competitive market. And if I'm an insurance company and all of a sudden, everyone else is selling a better policy with better benefits at a lower price, I can't continue to sell a lousy, skeletal policy that doesn't provide benefits and cost more, because I'll be out of the market.

CHANG: And while critics kept saying this new market had more than just a website problem, there were, as expected, many questions about how the website got so messed up. Why were there only two weeks of integrated testing? Did anyone know the contractors actually asked for more time? Republican Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, wanted a name.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN: Who was in charge as it was being built?

SEBELIUS: The CMS team was in charge up till...

BLACKBURN: At that team, who is the individual...

SEBELIUS: Michelle Snyder is the...

CHANG: That's the chief operating officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

BLACKBURN: Michelle Snyder is the one responsible for this debacle.

SEBELIUS: Well, excuse me, Congresswoman. Michelle Snyder is not responsible for the debacle. Hold me accountable for the debacle.


SEBELIUS: I'm responsible.

BLACKBURN: Thank you. I yield back.

CHANG: And though the debacle may have been Sebelius' to own, the enrollment data wasn't. She said there was still no reliable way she could say how many people have successfully signed up since the launch.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.