WASHINGTON — Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said Wednesday that the government needed to fix hundreds of problems with the website for the federal health insurance marketplace, but she categorically rejected bipartisan calls to delay parts of the new health care law.
Her comments, at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, came just hours after the Obama administration said that the chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, whose office supervised the creation of the troubled website, was retiring.
The official, Tony Trenkle, will step down on Nov. 15 “to take a position in the private sector,” said an e-mail message circulated among agency employees.
Trenkle, reached by telephone Wednesday, refused to discuss his plans.
“I can’t speak with you,” he said.
Trenkle’s retirement is part of a management shake-up disclosed by Michelle Snyder, the chief operating officer of the Medicare agency, who was herself deeply involved in major decisions about the insurance marketplace, or exchange.
The health insurance marketplace has been plagued with problems since it opened Oct. 1.
‘For millions of Americans, delay is not an option. People’s lives depend on this.’
With many people unable to obtain coverage through the website, lawmakers of both parties have suggested extending the open enrollment period or delaying the financial penalties for people who go without insurance.
Sebelius said that she and her colleagues had identified “a couple of hundred functional fixes” that must be made to the website, HealthCare.gov. But she turned aside calls for a delay in major provisions of the law.
“Delaying the Affordable Care Act would not delay people’s cancer or diabetes or Parkinson’s disease,” Sebelius said. “It would not delay the need for mental health services or cholesterol screenings or prenatal care. Delaying the Affordable Care Act doesn’t delay the foreclosure notices for families forced into bankruptcy by unpayable medical bills.”
“For millions of Americans, delay is not an option,” Sebelius said. “People’s lives depend on this.” Sebelius said she was accountable for what she described as “a miserable five weeks.” But she said: “I recognize that there is an even higher level of accountability — accountability to the sick, the vulnerable, the struggling Americans who deserve better health care. The impact on the lives of everyday people is getting lost.”
Senator Max Baucus, Democrat from Montana and chairman of the committee, said he was deeply disappointed with the rollout of the health insurance website. At a hearing with Sebelius in April, Baucus said he foresaw “a huge train wreck coming down” because the administration had done little to educate consumers.
But Baucus said on Wednesday, “I believe in this law,” and he refused to join Republicans who have called for Sebelius to resign. He said she needed to stay on the job to “help get the marketplaces working.”
Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the committee, complained that the administration had provided “untruthful answers” to questions about the new program.
“When you were here back in April, you assured us that the implementation was on track, that it was all going smoothly and that the exchanges would be ready to go live on Oct. 1,” Hatch told Sebelius. “Now it appears that your statements from the previous hearing were, at best, misinformed.”
“While I am glad that you are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with,” Hatch said.
Millions of consumers have been frustrated trying to shop for insurance on the site. The site is a central element of President Obama’s health care overhaul, under which most Americans will be required to have insurance next year.
Members of Congress from both parties have expressed concern about technical bugs with the website and security problems that they said could compromise personal information provided by consumers.
The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan, said he had issued a subpoena to the Medicare agency to get information on the number of people who have enrolled in coverage through the health insurance marketplace.
The Obama administration has refused to provide such data, repeatedly requested by Congress. Marilyn B. Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said she would provide some enrollment data next week.