Sebelius again in hot seat

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 9:15 p.m.

WASHINGTON — After a family friend repeated his call for her resignation during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius warned of “very low” numbers when enrollment figures for the health care website are released next week.

“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 testified at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee.

The news was hardly a shock, considering the vast problems with the website. But weak signup figures could make it harder to achieve the Obama administration's goal of enrolling 7 million people by March 31.

A low number of enrollees will provide fresh ammunition for congressional Republicans determined to have the Affordable Care Act repealed or its main provisions rolled back. On Tuesday, Medicare Administrator Marilyn Tavenner told another Senate committee that the department expected 800,000 to get coverage by the end of November on the state-run marketplaces and, the portal for the federal marketplace that serves 36 states.

Republican and Democratic senators complained about the rosy picture that Sebelius, her staff and private contractors painted in earlier testimony.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., called the updates “totally unsatisfactory” and warned Sebelius, “You've got to tell us what's working and what's not. ... The more you don't tell us, the greater the problems.”

Ranking minority member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was blunt: “No more caveats. No more excuses. No more spin. Just give us the truth.”

But it was Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas who provoked the biggest stir.

Roberts, who voted to confirm Sebelius in 2009, was an aide to her father-in-law, a former GOP congressman. They have been friends for years. But Roberts was the first member of Congress to call for her job because of the glitches.

In a five-minute statement during the hearing, Roberts accused Sebelius of failing to delay the flawed website's debut for political reasons.

“I believe you were given advice, counsel and warning from experts inside your agency and out, that the health care exchanges were not going to be ready,” he said. “I believe, to protect the (Obama) administration, you chose to ignore these warnings. ... You have said America should hold you accountable. ... I repeat my request for you to resign,” Roberts said.

Sebelius looked directly at him as he read his critique but remained impassive.

When the health secretary refused to comment on Obama's claims that the law would allow people to keep their insurance, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, angrily said: “It's impossible to do something in this administration that gets you fired.”

“It's unacceptable,” Sebelius said of the problems. But she said delaying implementation is not the answer.

“For millions of Americans, ‘delay' is not an option,” she said. “People's lives depend on this. Too many hardworking people have been waiting too long.”

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