The real-life version of “Groundhog Day” moved from the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week to the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, as Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius brought her mea culpa tour to Congress’s upper chamber. Despite the miserable rollout of President Obama’s “signature achievement,” Sebelius insisted that the healthcare.gov website had improved dramatically, even as she was forced to concede that “we’re not there yet” with regard to full functionality.
Senators from both parties held Sebelius’s feet to the fire. Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) insisted the HHS Secretary must be “candidly, fully, totally” honest with Congress about the repairs, “so that we don’t wake up at the end of November and find out we’re not there yet.” He expressed his disappointment that administration officials never foresaw problems with the website. “When we asked for updates on the marketplaces, the responses we got were totally unsatisfactory,” he said. “We heard multiple times that everything was on track. We now know that was not the case.”
Baucus knew that was the case long before yesterday. The chief architect of the healthcare bill openly expressed his reservations to Sebelius at a hearing last April, when he told her he “saw a huge train wreck coming down.” That “train wreck” line was widely reported. Not so widely reported was Baucus’s reservations about the contractor hired by Sebelius. “I’m just worried that’s going to be money down the drain,” he said.
Baucus was prescient about one of the six largest contractors involved insetting up the website. HHS awarded a no-bid contract to CGI Federal, the U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian company. A top executive at CGI, Toni Townes-Whitley, was First Lady Michelle Obama’s Princeton classmate. Moreover, HHS hired them despite a track record of failure with regard setting up far smaller operational websites in Canada. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) deflected blame away from Sebelius and onto the contractors for the website’s shortcomings. “I want you to burn their fingers and make `em pay for not being responsible and producing a product that all of us could be proud,” he said.
Nelson is aiming at the wrong target. On October 30, Bob Laszewski, who heads a consulting firm for big insurance companies, contended that the Obama administration is “exerting massive pressure on the industry, including the trade associations, to keep quiet” about the problems associated with the rollout. Despite denials by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, health-care consultant Larry Thompson seconded that assessment, telling National Review that insurance company executives “are afraid to say anything because they don’t want HHS all over them.”
Last week, House Oversight Committee chairman Darryl Issa (R-CA) was forced to subpoena Sebelius for documentation regarding the rollout, because she refused to provide it without being forced to do so. And yesterday, Issa unveiled documents obtained from ObamaCare contractors revealing the October rollout was far more chaotic than previously reported.
In other words, the “most transparent administration in history” is back in stonewalling mode, and Nelson is attempting to obscure where the real blame for this failure should be placed.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) blasted Sebelius for the administration’s “cavalier attitude,” and its “broken promises” with regard to the millions of Americans who are seeing their insurance plans changed or cancelled. “More and more promises made at the time this law was passed are now crumbling under the weight of reality on a daily basis,” he said. “While I am glad that you are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with.” Hatch wants Sebelius to update Congress once a month regarding all progress being made. “No more excuses,” he warned her. “No more spin, just give us the truth.”
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) was equally blunt. “The website’s not working, fine. But the law is not working,” he contended. He noted that many Americans will face far higher prices for insurance premiums when the law is fully in effect next year. Sebelius countered that premium prices are 16 percent lower than the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated they would be. Yet when Crapo asked the Secretary if that meant prices for insurance would be lower next year compared to this year, Sebelius admitted it did not.
Whether or not the law is working, Sebelius dismissed any possibility it would be delayed. “Delay is not an option,” she insisted. “We are still at the beginning of a six-month open enrollment that ends at the end of March, and there’s plenty of time to sign up for the new plans.”
That sentiment runs contrary to the one expressed by members of both parties, particularly Democrats up for re-election in 2014. It would appear they are beginning to understand the lethal political liability of a law that may cause as many as 93 million Americans to lose their current insurance policies.
Democrats may have gotten even more nervous when Republicans expressed concerns about the security and testing of the website. Staying true to form, Sebelius insisted that administration officials and security consultants saw no reason for delays. “No one suggested the risks outweighed the importance of moving forward,” she declared. She also noted that experts have run “a series of diagnostics, looked at the entire system and determined that HealthCare.gov is fixable and it isn’t fatally flawed.” That would be the same website that never received a single end-to-end security test prior to its launch.
Yet the website remains only part of the problem. During questioning by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Sebelius was forced to admit there is nothing in the federal regulations that would prevent a convicted felon from becoming an ObamaCare navigator. “Isn’t it true there is no federal requirement for navigators to undergo a criminal background check, even though they will receive personal information from the individuals they help to sign-up up for the Affordable Care Act?” Cornyn asked. “That is true,” Sebelius replied. “States could have an additional background check and other features, but it is not part of the federal requirement.” Cornyn continued. “So a convicted felon could be a navigator and could acquire sensitive personal information from an individual unbeknownst to them?” Sebelius answered, “This is possible.”
Moving from the possible to the highly probable, yesterday the FBI revealed that they believe the “potential for crime in health care reform is huge,” including estimates of tax credit fraud projected to surpass $20 billion–because ObamaCare insurance subsidies will be doled out on the honor system.
The next shoe to drop was Sebelius’s admission that when the administration does release the enrollment figures for ObamaCare, they will be dismal. “The enrollment numbers which we will release next week, which will be the first month of enrollment, are likely to be quite low given that struggles people have had getting access to the site and getting information,” Sebelius conceded. “I’m hoping that with the site improvement we’ll see more robust numbers, but until the site is fully improved and we really kind of open up the doors wide to a lot of people, we’re going to have I think a struggle getting significant numbers to sign up,” she added.
Without significant numbers of enrollments–including at least 2.7 million younger, healthier Americans out of the seven million people the system needs to sign up in year one–insurance premiums are likely to increase significantly in order to cover the pool of policyholders who are older and unhealthier. Rising premiums will discourage even more younger, healthier people from signing up, especially since the alternative fines are far cheaper. As the process repeats itself, a “death spiral” ensues.
According to the Wall Street Journal, current enrollees are “older than expected so far.” Furthermore, the fallback excuse–that younger healthier Americans will shy away from the glitchy, federally-run website, while older sicker Americans persevere–isn’t holding true. Smoother-running state exchanges are also seeing an ominous signup pattern. In Connecticut and Kentucky, both of which have enrolled more than 4,000 people, those older than 55 comprise the largest segment of ObamaCare enrollees, “much older than industry actuaries say they had anticipated.” And while the law contains a provision allowing the government (read: taxpayers) to reimburse insurers for some losses, unless the pool of enrollees meets the right age-related criteria, those reimbursements may not prevent insurers from losing money.
New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have already experienced a death spiral. Like ObamaCare, older, sicker people could not be charged more for coverage than younger, healthier people. As a result, premiums in those states rose to double and triple the national average.
Finally, there was the subject Sebelius was undoubtedly eager to avoid. Several Republicans hammered away at the HHS Secretary regarding the president’s promise that if you liked your healthcare plan, you could keep your healthcare plan. Like a good soldier, Sebelius embraced the administration’s despicable effort to re-write history. “The president’s promise was written into the law from day one, and that was the grandfather clause,” she insisted.
Republican committee members weren’t buying it. “There weren’t any caveats on that at the time. It’s not like there were any asterisks or footnotes,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD). “We know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately, lying to the American people is not,” said Cornyn. Even Democrat Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) voiced the frustration of “a couple million people, sadly, who are not going to be able to keep the policies that they want and are facing large increases in premiums.”
Yet is was Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KA) who encapsulated the fears, frustrations and anger felt by the millions of Americans regarding both ObamaCare and the unfettered arrogance of an administration determined to impose their will on the public, irrespective of the disastrous consequences that have ensued:
Madame Secretary, you yourself know that this law has serious problems. You delayed over half of the mandate deadlines. You did it for employers, for unions, and for small business, but not for the exchanges…nor for millions of Americans that are losing their health care..Your main goal should have been to protect Americans, to lessen their risk, and to ensure their safety, but in your zeal to implement this law, not warnings, not advice, not counsel would deter you from implementing the exchanges. You have said America should hold you accountable, which is why today, Madame Secretary, I repeat my request for you to resign.
With any luck, the American public will turn that request into a demand.
Don’t miss this week’s Glazov Gang, which exposes ObamaCare’s Dirty Little Secret.
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