By Karen Pallarito
WEDNESDAY, Oct. 30 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday claimed responsibility for the failed rollout of HealthCare.gov and committed to fixing the website's many software and system problems.
"I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.gov," Sebelius testified before the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee. "So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better, I apologize. I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems."
Sebelius, who testified under oath, appeared before members of Congress for the first time since the troubled Oct. 1 rollout of the federal health insurance marketplace that's intended to let millions of uninsured Americans purchase health-care coverage.
The secretary's much-anticipated remarks came amid a rising chorus of GOP calls in the House and Senate seeking her resignation. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday joined at least two other Senators in calling for her to step down.
Sebelius is the second member of the Obama administration to testify this week. On Tuesday, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, issued a public apology in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee and discussed efforts to improve the website within a month.
On Wednesday, Sebelius admitted that "end-to-end" testing of the website had been inadequate. Now that problems are being identified and resolved, she said she expects HealthCare.gov to be functioning optimally by the end of November.
But in opening remarks, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich) said the site was down early Wednesday morning when "we were hit with an error message."
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee's second-most senior member, compared the website glitches to early problems with the rollout of Medicare's prescription drug program, which took effect Jan. 1, 2006. He urged his fellow committee members "to stop hyperventilating."
As with the prescription drug program, "the early glitches with this program will soon be forgotten," he said.
The federal website is the entry point for millions of Americans in 36 states to enroll in health insurance plans that take effect in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act. People in 14 states and the District of Columbia may enroll through state-based health insurance exchanges, or marketplaces.
But since Day One, consumers attempting to access HealthCare.gov have experienced long wait times, timeouts and error messages, making it difficult to enroll for health-care coverage online.
In a heated exchange, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) pressed Sebelius for the names of people "responsible for this debacle."
"Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible," Sebelius said.
Along with the website foul-up, many committee members grilled the secretary on another issue: recent cancellations of individual health insurance policies.
Recalling President Barack Obama's oft-repeated promise to Americans that "if you like your health plan, you can keep it," Republican members told stories of constituents receiving cancellation notices from their insurers.
"We know that in the individual market, a number of the plans being sold are not 'grandfathered' and are not currently meeting the (health reform) law," Sebelius acknowledged.
Historically, people with individual insurance policies could be "locked out, priced out, dumped out" of their coverage. But new protections under the Affordable Care Act will prevent such abuses, she said.