(WASHINGTON) — Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius predicted Wednesday that the October enrollment figures released next week will likely be “quite low” after consumers have struggled to access the online marketplace for Obamacare.
“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 said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday.
“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.
Sebelius told the committee a “couple of hundred functional fixes” to HealthCare.gov have been identified and are being worked on. She said the site is expected to work for the “vast majority” of users by the end of the month.
Sebelius, who was testifying on Capitol Hill for the second time in one week, was grilled for two and a half hours over the progress made on the troubled enrollment website. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., asked Sebelius whether the agency has considered taking HealthCare.gov down until the problems are fixed.
“Why not shut down and do it right?” Baucus, chairman of the committee said, asked.
“We have asked that question a number of times: Would it just be helpful to take the whole system down and make fixes along the way? We’ve been advised that that actually doesn’t help, that it is better to do routine upgrades,” Sebelius said.
Republicans hammered Sebelius for the administration’s past claim that if you liked your insurance, you would be able to keep it. Sebelius defended the president’s promise and did not offer an apology for it.
“The president’s promise was in the law from the day it was written, and that is the grandfather clause that we wrote as a policy,” Sebelius said.
“This is a dishonest mistake. This is a dishonesty,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said. “You’ve been misleading the American people, and the president has over and over and over again.”
One of the issues addressed by Republicans and Democrats alike was the lack of transparency between Sebelius and Congress in the lead up to the botched rollout, which Sebelius has described as “excruciatingly awful.” Senators encouraged Sebelius to be more forthcoming as the administration works on making the site fully functional.
“We want to help you get it right. But it’s a two-way street. You’ve got to tell us what’s working and what’s not working,” Baucus said. “The more you don’t tell us, the greater the problems going to be.”
“No more caveats. No more excuses. No more spin. Just give us the truth,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranking member of the committee said.
As questions remain about whether personal information entered on the site is secure, Sebelius conceded it is “possible” for convicted felons to be hired as healthcare navigators, people hired to help consumers enroll in the marketplace, because background checks are not a federal requirement.
“So a convicted felon could be a navigator and could acquire sensitive personal information from an individual unbeknownst to them?” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked.
“That is possible,” Sebelius said. “We have contracts with the organizations and they have taken the responsibility to screen their individual navigators.”
Sebelius later said she would “certainly take a look” at any legislation which would create a federal requirement for background checks on navigators rather than leaving the decision to the states.
In Dallas Wednesday, President Obama will meet with canvassers and navigators working with Dallas Area Interfaith, a group working on enrollment and outreach efforts.
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