If you’ve been keeping up with health care news in the United States, you’ve probably come across the name Kathleen Sebelius quite a lot. Sebelius is the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). As HHS Secretary, Sebelius is responsible for administering health and welfare programs through the department, and for advising the president on matters of health. With the passage of Obamacare, the duties of HHS Secretary increased, but not everyone thinks Kathleen Sebelius has been doing a job with her new workload – in fact, just this month, some lawmakers have called for Sebelius to resign.
On Sunday the 27 of October, House Republican Darrell Issa of California said on CBS news that Sebelius must ensure technical bugs on newly-opened health insurance marketplaces are fixed. If those technological issues cannot be overcome, Sebelius “shouldn’t be there,” according to Issa. The politician also blamed Sebelius for not having had the foresight to expect such technical difficulties, implying that she should have had a plan in place for the potential glitches now being seen in some online exchanges.
The insurance exchanges to which Issa refers are a key part of the 2010 Obamacare law. Each state will either run its own marketplace, or use a federally-created site. On these exchanges, state residents and employers can shop online for a health insurance policy; comparing a number of plans, evaluating prices based on SUBSIDIES owed, and eventually purchasing a policy.
Since the opening of health insurance exchanges at the beginning of October, these websites have experienced glitches – crashing web pages, links that will not open, and long wait times for users attempting to enroll with the exchanges.
Sebelius and other lawmakers have pointed out that many of these technical issues are due to a huge number of people attempting to enroll with their state exchange at the same time. The initial problems faced by the exchanges are therefore, in some sense, a positive indication that huge numbers of Americans are eager to get enrolled with their exchange and start shopping for health insurance.
However, Republican politicians in particular say that the insurance exchange glitches are just another example of how Obamacare is ineffective and poorly thought out. These lawmakers blame health administrators, Kathleen Sebelius in particular, for debuting exchanges that are ineffectual and full of bugs. Some congresspeople, both Republican and Democrat, have asked that the deadline for mandatory insurance be postponed. At the moment, the law states that on March 31, 2014, every American must hold an insurance policy; however, the exchange website glitches might make that requirement more difficult for some state residents to meet.
Speaking with news reporters from a health insurance call center in Arizona, Sebelius said last week that the functionality of the federal exchange, healthcare.gov, is improving every day. She also pointed out that because such good improvements have already been seen in the first three weeks of the exchanges, there is no doubt that during the next 26 weeks of the enrollment period, further betterments will absolutely occur. She compared the rollout of insurance exchanges to a game of football, saying that right now, the game is only in its first quarter – there’s plenty of time to go, and lots of reasons to think that exchanges will only get better.
In response to lawmakers calling for her resignation, Sebelius countered that those politicians are primarily people who do not want health insurance exchanges, or Obamacare as a whole, to succeed. Republicans have The HHS Secretary has said that instead of answering calls from Republicans for her to step down, she is instead focusing on fixing the current problems faced by insurance exchanges. Sebelius has stated, quite clearly, that she has no plans to resign, although the Secretary may face questioning before Congress this week. She is expected to testify on why the rollout of Obamacare exchanges has not been as flawless as anticipated.
Still, many lawmakers have expressed their support for Sebelius. Representative Xavier Becerra of California, for example, has said that policy makers should be focusing on improving insurance exchanges, rather than worrying about who is to blame for current technical problems. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin explained that despite his well-known skepticism of Obamacare, he believes that Sebelius will do a good job of improving the federal exchange, and that she should not resign. In Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear has said that their state exchange is running fine, and that in a state with some of the worst health care statistics in the nation, it is promising to see the large amount of people that have already enrolled for coverage through the online exchange.
Kentucky, like a number of other Democrat-governed states, elected to create its own insurance exchange. Many Republican-lead states, in a protest against Obamacare, refused to build an exchange. However, by failing to run their own marketplace, these states had to join the federal exchange, Healthcare.gov. In general, those states that took the initiative to make their own exchange have experienced far fewer technical problems than states now relying on the federal government.
So, who’s to blame? The administrator who didn’t get health exchanges right, or the lawmakers who declined to even try? Some lawmakers have gone so far as to call Sebelius’s work incompetent, yet at the same time, it is likely that Republican politicians will have to do some careful explaining during the next elections. Republican voters are overwhelmingly anti-federal government, so as much as Republican lawmakers may criticize Kathleen Sebelius and the federal insurance exchange, voters may wonder why their Republican leaders chose to rely on the federal government in the first place.