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WEDNESDAY, Nov. 6 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday that the Obama administration will not consider delaying implementation of health reform. Nor will it take down HealthCare.gov -- the troubled health insurance marketplace website -- while it's being fixed.
"For millions of Americans delay is not an option," Sebelius told the Senate Finance Committee during a hearing on the new health insurance marketplace. "People's lives depend on this," she said.
Sebelius was called before the committee to respond to questions about the health-reform law's rocky implementation, including problems with the HealthCare.gov website. The site is intended to serve as a portal to allow millions of uninsured Americans to sign up for coverage.
During questioning, Sebelius said that a team of public- and private-sector experts given the task of fixing the website was working through a "punch list" of "a couple of hundred functional fixes."
"I would say we're into the list. We're not where we need to be," she admitted.
Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), one of the chief backers of the controversial health-reform law known as the Affordable Care Act, expressed disappointment in the administration's failure to "see the problems coming" prior to the Oct. 1 launch of the website. He asked Sebelius point blank: "Why not shut it down and do it right?"
Sebelius said her team has advised her that HealthCare.gov is fixable. And given that the repairs are taking place in batches, "you don't gain much from just taking the whole system down," she said.
The Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's chief domestic policy achievement, began to take effect in 2010. Under the law, most Americans must have health insurance coverage by 2014 or pay federal tax penalties.
The Oct. 1 launch of the federal and state health insurance exchange websites was intended to be a major milestone in the law's implementation, offering millions of Americans a venue to compare health plans and enroll in coverage, often with the help of federal subsidies. But with the HealthCare.gov website experiencing troubles from the start, many people have been thwarted from signing up for coverage.
Americans in 36 states can use the federal health exchange to enroll in health plans during the current open enrollment period, which runs through March 31. People in 14 states and the District of Columbia will buy coverage through their own state exchanges.
Amid continuing uproar over the federal exchange fiasco, new questions are emerging over many of the health-reform law's key provisions.
Calling the implementation "an absolute debacle," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the committee's second most senior member, questioned Sebelius on the apparent failure of the administration to heed warnings that the federal website posed privacy and security risks.
"I would say that the standards that have been set out for security controls were met," Sebelius responded.
Hatch said the administration's failure to inform the committee of problems with the website before Oct. 1 was "inexcusable." He called on Sebelius to brief the committee once a month for the next six months on the ongoing implementation of the health-reform law, sometimes called Obamacare.
Sebelius told the committee that the administration intends to release enrollment figures next week. The initial figures of people who've successfully signed up for health insurance are expected to be small.
A recent Commonwealth Fund survey found that 17 percent of Americans eligible for coverage had visited the new marketplaces and, of those people, 21 percent had enrolled in a health plan. In other words, a small percentage of people who may be eligible for coverage had actually enrolled, according to the survey.
A report last week, based on informal memos released by the Republican-chaired House Oversight Committee, indicated that only six people had signed up for coverage on the first day of open enrollment, Oct. 1.
Also Wednesday, the chief information officer at the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, whose office supervised creation of HealthCare.gov, is retiring, The New York Times reported.
Tony Trenkle will retire Nov. 15 "to take a position in the private sector," according to an email message sent to agency employees, the Times said.
Reached by telephone on Wednesday, Trenkle declined to discuss his plans, the newspaper reported. "I can't speak with you," he said.
On Tuesday, Utah's Hatch and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released a letter questioning whether the U.S. Internal Revenue Service was capable of accurately processing the premium subsidies that many Americans may receive to hold down the cost of insurance coverage. The letter to IRS Principal Deputy Commissioner Daniel Werfel warned of potential tax-credit fraud, wasting billions in taxpayer dollars.
Read The Commonwealth Fund report for more on Americans' experience with the new health insurance exchanges.
SOURCES: Nov. 6, 2013, U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; November 2013, report, The Commonwealth Fund, New York City; Nov. 5, 2013, news release, U.S. Senate Finance Committee; The New York Times