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Kathleen Sebelius apologizes for health site’s malfunctions

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a House committee Wednesday she is “as frustrated and angry as anyone” over the launch of the website.

JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a House committee Wednesday she is “as frustrated and angry as anyone” over the launch of the website.

WASHINGTON — Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, apologized Wednesday for the frustration that millions of Americans have experienced while trying to shop for insurance on the HealthCare.gov website, even as she defended the problem-plagued rollout of President Obama’s health care law and tried to explain the cancellation of hundreds of thousands of individual insurance policies.

Sebelius, fighting for her political life at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said she was “as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.gov.”

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Sebelius said she was responsible for “this debacle,” including the website’s problems. But she said that a government contractor, Verizon’s Terremark unit, was responsible for outages that disrupted the website Sunday and again Tuesday.

Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan,said: “Over the months leading up to the Oct. 1 launch, the secretary and her colleagues repeatedly looked us in the eye and testified that everything was on track. Despite the red flags and lack of testing, they assured us that all systems were a go.

“But something happened along the way. Either those officials did not know how bad the situation was, or they did not disclose it.”

Moreover, Upton said: “There are millions of Americans coast to coast who no doubt believed the president’s repeated promise that if they liked their plan, they’d be able to keep it. They are now receiving termination notices.”

Sebelius said the cancellation of some individual policies was a justifiable byproduct of the 2010 health care law. These policies will be replaced, she said, with new policies that provide better benefits and more consumer protections, often at similar or lower prices.

People in the individual market have never had consumer protections, Sebelius said. “They can be locked out, priced out, dumped out.”

However, in recent weeks, many consumers have received cancellation notices offering new policies at prices much higher than what they have been paying.

Confidential government documents show that the main contractor on the project, CGI Federal, a unit of the CGI Group, warned the Obama administration of problems with the website in early September.

“Due to the compressed schedule, there is not enough time built in to allow for adequate performance testing,” CGI said in a report sent to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Sept. 6.

Four days later a top CGI executive, Cheryl R. Campbell, told Congress that the company was “confident in its ability to deliver successfully” on its contract, so people could use the website to enroll in health insurance plans starting Oct. 1.

In its report, CGI said it was a “near certainty” that the company would not have enough time for testing. The company said it wanted to work with the enters for Medicare and Medicaid Services “establish a realistic schedule that will allow for the necessary testing.”

Sebelius acknowledged that comprehensive testing of the website, which began in mid-September, was inadequate.

“Clearly we did not adequately do end-to-end testing,” Sebelius said Wednesday. “Each of the component parts was tested and independently validated.” But, she said, the government did not do enough testing of the whole system from start to finish.

Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan, said that the administration had not properly tested the security of the website, which receives financial information on many consumers seeking subsidies to help pay their premiums.

Sebelius said she was confident that the system was secure because her department had conducted many reviews.

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