WASHINGTON Oct 17 Republicans in Congress
chastised President Barack Obama's top health adviser on
Thursday for declining to testify before an oversight panel
about problems in rolling out the president's signature
healthcare program known as Obamacare.
Less than a day after Congress ended a 16-day partial
government shutdown precipitated by Republican demands to delay
or defund Obamacare, they sent a letter to Health and Human
Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanding she make
officials available for the Oct. 24 hearing.
The online insurance exchanges that are a central part of
Obamacare rolled out on Oct. 1 despite the shutdown but have
been hobbled by technical difficulties that Sebelius has said
are being fixed.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing is titled:
"Implementation Failures: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose?"
The letter from majority members of the committee said they
invited Sebelius on Oct. 11 to appear at the hearing, only to
learn on Wednesday that she would not attend. The administration
has not agreed to provide other administration officials, the
"It's well past time for the administration to be straight
and transparent with the American people," said a separate
statement by Republican Representative Fred Upton, who chairs
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had no
A spokeswoman for the panel's Republican majority did not
respond to a Reuters inquiry about whether subpoenas would be
issued by the committee.
Upton said top administration officials had previously said
that everything was on track, but the broad technological
failures revealed that was not the case. "Either the
administration was not ready for launch, or it was not up to the
job," he said.
Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is
expected to provide private health coverage to an estimated 7
million uninsured Americans through the new online marketplaces
that opened for enrollment in all 50 states on Oct. 1.
But the website Healthcare.gov, the administration's online
portal for consumers in 36 states, was hobbled by technical
issues - including error messages, garbled text and delays
loading pages - that administration officials partly blame on an
unexpectedly high volume of 14.6 million visitors in its first
Sebelius recently appeared on the cable-television comedy
program, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" for an interview that
focused on the website's problems.
But HHS and the White House have largely declined to
disclose information about the problems plaguing the federal
marketplace's information technology system, which cost nearly
$400 million to build, according to a report by the watchdog
Government Accountability Office.
"This is wholly unacceptable. Secretary Sebelius had time
for Jon Stewart, and we expect her to have time for Congress,"
Upton's panel is one of at least three House committees
expected to hold hearings as part of a new Republican plan to
attack the healthcare reform's weaknesses, beginning with the
problem-plagued technology behind its launch.
The oversight is expected to span the cost of new insurance
plans under the healthcare law, online security, fraud, the role
of the Internal Revenue Service and the fate of consumers who
are unable to enroll in coverage in the coming weeks, according
to congressional aides.
"It's not just a bumpy rollout. We're crossing a bridge with
a warning sign that says: BRIDGE OUT," said Republican
Representative Tim Murphy, who chairs the House Energy and
Commerce panel's health subcommittee and plans to hold his own
"We'll be trying to get people from the administration to
tell us whether they were pretending everything was OK or was
there an internal cover-up or did they just not know?" he added.
Oversight is also not the only strategy Republicans are
House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement that
Republicans will rely on "smart, targeted strikes" aimed at
splitting Obama's support in Congress. His office did not
But strategists say Republicans plan to use newly begun
budget talks to jettison provisions of the law that are also
unpopular with Democrats, possibly including a $29 billion tax
on medical devices and a panel to control costs within the
Medicare program for the elderly and disabled.