Unfortunately, no one saw the wonderful Wizard of Oz, but the wizard behind the Affordable Care Act. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, the same day that President Obama gave his speech on PPACA in Boston, Massachusetts. The two however, had very different messages. Secretary Sebelius apologized to the infamous monkey court for all the issues with the healthcare.gov website saying, “You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.” In contrast President Obama continued to tout the law and urged people to take a deep breath and remember that the existing issues with PPACA will eventually be history.
Secretary Sebelius’ testimony and questioning before the House Energy and Commerce Committee turned out to be quite the show. Obviously, since she is the former insurance commissioner and governor of Kansas, many members of Congress (and us) couldn’t help but make Wizard of Oz jokes. It all started when Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) kindly reminded Secretary Sebelius that she’s not in Kansas anymore and there are real and serious issues with the healthcare law that need to be dealt with. Ironically enough, the healthcare.gov website was down for system maintenance during the hearing. Secretary Sebelius claimed that the system error was due to a technical error by Verizon and that healthcare.gov was not the only Verizon client experiencing these issues. Your Washington Update authors are feeling pretty good about their AT&T and Sprint service right about now.
While Secretary Sebelius did take the heat and apologized for the issues with the exchange rollout, she also pointed some fingers. We’re all familiar with President Obama’s famous line, “if you like your health plan you can keep it,” which NAHU members have long felt was an exaggeration, to put it nicely, given that you can’t impose new market reforms and expect things to remain the same. The Administration doesn’t seem to see it that way and Secretary Sebelius was quick to blame insurance carriers, saying it’s their choice which plans to keep and which plans to drop. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who is not a fan of the health reform law and its requirement that all health insurance plans cover a robust set of benefits, wasn’t buying it. She responded to the secretary’s charge with some entertaining commentary during the hearing. Representative Blackburn told the secretary sharply that “I will remind you: some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red solo cup and not a crystal stem. You’re taking away their choice.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the hearing began with Representative Cory Gardner’s (R-CO) line of questioning. Representative Gardner does not participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan because, as he told the committee, he wants the same healthcare his constituents have. His family just received a notice from their insurance carrier saying that their plan will no longer be offered in the coming year. But in addition to making it clear that his family couldn’t keep their health coverage, Gardner also used his time for questioning for show and tell. Gardner brought in a health insurance ad targeted at college boys encouraging them to go out and get health insurance. The ad featured a college student doing a keg stand with the caption, “Brosurance, Keg stands are crazy, not having health insurance is crazier. Don’t tap into your beer money to cover those medical bills. We got it covered.” For the record, Secretary Sebelius made it clear that she didn’t approve that particular ad!
Representative Gardner then went on to ask Secretary Sebelius if she would participate in the exchange – and this is where things really started to heat up. Secretary Sebelius, just before Representative Gardner’s time expired, told the committee that she was not eligible to participate in the exchange because she has affordable coverage from her employer. This was a misstatement. Sebelius is exchange eligible, she is just not subsidy eligible. Representative Billy Long (R-MO) continued to press the secretary on the issue, reminding the secretary that she is, in fact eligible for the exchange if she waives her federal employee coverage. Since Secretary Sebelius continued to hedge the question as to whether or not she would join an exchange, if in fact she was wrong in her previous statement and actually eligible, Ranking Member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) asked the secretary to answer the question. Not knowing that her microphone was hot, Secretary Sebelius under her breath said, “don’t do this to me” as Waxman asked the question. Eventually, Sebelius said she would happily enter the exchange if she were eligible. Someone on her staff should probably inform her that she could go onto the exchange if she so desires.
Despite all of this, Secretary Sebelius did highlight the role of agents and brokers during her testimony. She made several references to the fact that agents and brokers are here to help the consumers enroll in health insurance. While she may have been fuzzy on some PPACA basics, we’re just glad she was able to accurately point out that our members are ready to help!