6 Questions Sebelius Can Expect From the GOP

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:26pm

What did you know and when did you know it?

It’s a congressional classic — and for good reason.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, when Republicans will surely ask about her knowledge of the problems with HealthCare.gov leading up to the Oct. 1 rollout.

House Republicans are also certain to move past the website to attack the entire law. GOP leaders began moving away from the website issues on Tuesday, focusing instead on the thousands of people getting letters telling them their premiums are soaring or their health plan is disappearing.

Those stories have the administration scrambling to issue caveats to President Barack Obama’s often-repeated statement that people would be able to keep their existing health plans if they liked them — while hoping to refocus on the millions of other people who will gain access to Medicaid or see lower premiums and an end to coverage denial because of pre-existing conditions.

Here are six questions you can expect Republicans to ask Sebelius on Wednesday:

How could this happen on your watch?

The quintessential question for Sebelius is one of management. From the GOP’s perspective, either she knew about the problems and failed to fix them or she should have known. So far, the administration narrative has been that Obama didn’t know the extent of the website problems. Will Sebelius blame the contractors, her own staff, or simply apologize?

Will you resign?

Sebelius and the White House have already brushed off questions about her job security, and you can expect she will do the same again Wednesday. But these hearings are all about the follow-up questions — and the political messaging. “If you won’t resign, do you not recognize the severity of the problems facing HealthCare.gov? Who should be held to blame? Doesn’t accountability ultimately rest with you, Mrs. Secretary?” It’s standard Washington political theater fare for a public official on the hot seat. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was the latest to call on Sebelius to step down Tuesday, and you should expect plenty more tomorrow. Watch to see how strongly — or not — Democrats come to Sebelius’ defense.

Will you admit that when the president said “if you have a health care plan you like, you can keep it,” that was a lie? What is the administration going to do to keep its promise to Americans?

Many Americans in the individual insurance market are about to receive — or have already — cancellation notices from their insurance companies, or sticker shock from dramatically higher premiums.

BlueShield of California sent 119,000 such letters to customers last month, two-thirds of whom will experience a rate increase come January.

And NBC reported Monday night that 50 percent to 75 percent of the 14 million Americans privately purchasing health insurance are expected to receive cancellation notices over the next year.

Expect Sebelius to use a variation of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s answer to similar questions on Tuesday. Carney contended that the 80 percent of Americans who have insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Affairs system or through their employer will be able to keep their plan — and the only people who might lose their insurance are in the individual insurance market, about 5 percent of Americans. Those individuals were “grandfathered” in if their insurers continued to offer the plan they had when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, Carney said. But many insurers aren’t keeping those old plans around. Carney noted that many of those old plans didn’t provide the protections that the Affordable Care Act requires.

How many Americans have signed up for health insurance through HealthCare.gov, and what happens if there are significantly fewer enrollees than the administration or the Congressional Budget Office has calculated?

Expect Republicans to ding Sebelius early and often for the lack of transparency on how many Americans have signed up. The Ways and Means Committee did the same Tuesday to Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Tavenner apologized for the rollout and said the administration wouldn’t have an initial number for enrollments until mid-November. Republicans are dying for a number to throw in the face of the administration, assuming the total is far smaller than the White House anticipated, particularly among the young people needed to sign up to keep the exchanges affordable and prevent taxpayer-paid subsidies from soaring. The administration has minimized the importance of early sign-ups given the experience in Massachusetts, which likewise had rollout problems in its health care overhaul and had a surge in enrollments just before the deadline for avoiding the individual mandate tax.

How can Americans trust this website to keep their information secure if it is already experiencing so many problems just in signing people up?

Administration officials have already noted that the exchanges don’t take health information the way insurance forms used to in the past because pre-existing conditions are no longer a bar. But there’s plenty of other information that people have to enter and Republicans have questioned how Sebelius can possibly know it is secure.

How much has HealthCare.gov cost? How much will it cost to fix and who will pay for it?

The administration has been less than clear about the costs of the glitch-ridden rollout, and it likely doesn’t know how much it will ultimately cost to fix. If Sebelius dances around the issue, expect Republicans to make a stink about taxpayers writing blank checks for a website that isn’t working properly. And many want to know who is responsible and who — if anybody — is losing their job.