(Bloomberg)  A day after her deputy apologized for the failures with the Affordable Care Act insurance exchange, U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius followed suit and told Congress that she shoulders the blame for the botched rollout.

“Hold me accountable for the debacle,” Sebelius said in response to accusations at a congressional hearing today that her deputies failed to do their jobs. “I’m responsible.”

In a contentious exchange, lawmakers quizzed Sebelius on the malfunctioning website set up as part of the ACA. They also raised privacy concerns, asked about broken promises that people would be able to keep existing medical plans and questioned whether there was a way to penalize the contractors that built the site.

“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of healthcare.gov,” Sebelius told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Let me say directly to these Americans:  You deserve better. I apologize.”

Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday and blamed outside contractors for the website woes, though she apologized to Americans for the exchange’s flaws. Tavenner’s agency is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, run by Sebelius.

Sebelius told the Energy and Commerce Committee that she is working to correct the technology issues that have made it hard for people to enroll. Her agency though may not be able to penalize the contractors that helped design healthcare.gov, which included CGI Group Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc.

Deeper issues

“There isn’t a built-in penalty but I can tell you that paying for work that isn’t complete is not something that we will do,” Sebelius said.

Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said “Americans are scared and frustrated.” He cited constituents’ concern that their existing health policies would be canceled, their premiums would rise or they would face tax penalties.

More than 30 House Republicans and at least three U.S. senators are asking for Sebelius to step down. They include Senators Pat Roberts of Kansas and John Barrasso of Wyoming, as well as Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012 whose losing campaign promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act if elected.

“The bottom line is the problems with ‘Obamacare’ run deeper than just the website,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said yesterday at a news conference.

Political opposition

Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department, said many of those calling for Sebelius to quit have long opposed the ACA.

“There has been a longstanding political opposition to the law by some, despite the benefits it is delivering to millions of Americans,” Peters said in an e-mail. Sebelius “is committed to getting this right and ensuring that healthcare.gov is working smoothly.”

No Democrat has publicly questioned Sebelius’s leadership despite the exchange being plagued by delays and error messages that have prevented some people from completing applications. A few days ago, the data hub that routes tax information to sites run by the federal government and 14 states lost connectivity after workers tried to replace a broken networking component.

In the lead-up to this month’s rollout, Sebelius gave few hints of anything wrong, telling a House committee in June that the online marketplace would be ready. Sebelius today said her agency is working to correct the flaws.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Health Data Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access