Federal Health Secretary Dispels Obamacare Web Site ‘Fatal Flaws’ in San Antonio

While in San Antonio this afternoon to talk about the Affordable Care Act, U.S. Department Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius alleviated concerns over the glitch-prone federal exchange web site and sought to temper the politicization of Obamacare.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visits San Antonio to talk ACA. Photo by Mary Tuma.

“I’ll be the first to say that the web site has not in any way lived up to its full potential and that’s a huge frustration to way too many consumers,” said Sebelius. “We want to dispel the notion that somehow the web site is fatally flawed– it is functional, it can be fixed. It will be fixed.”

The web site is “far from where we want it to be and where it should be.” However, the HHS is working diligently to fix technical problems, she said. Sebelius said she’s brought on Jeff Zients, a former administration employee to manage improvements and have planned a series of changes, including a new general contractor that will prioritize the fixes. HHS expects to have most of the problems resolved by the end of November, said Sebelius.

Both sides of the political aisle have criticized healthcare.gov for its unreliability. The glitches on the online federal marketplace site recently spurred a four-hour Congressional hearing to determine who to pin the not-quite-ready-for-primetime rollout on– the contractors? the feds? (Judging by the D.C. press reports, the hearing seemed to be a chalk-full of finger-pointing with no defined culprit and no apologies.)

Alongside Mayor Julian Castro, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and health leaders at CentroMed, Sebelius readily admitted to the complications and, echoing President Obama, said the ACA wasn’t just a web site. She stressed the four different ways people can apply: Aside from the web site, there’s a 24/7 bilingual call center (and translators in 150 languages), in-person assistance and a mail-in paper application. Sebelius also made note that it’s still early in the game. The 26-week enrollment period lasts until the end of March 2014.

Wolff and Castro discussed the local community’s ACA outreach and education efforts.

“The City of San Antonio is committed to being a strong partner in effort to enroll,” said Castro, pointing to the resources available at the 26 branch libraries participating in the process and the newly trained 311 city employees ready to answer basic questions about enrollment.

“Throughout all of this we should never forget, that in the wealthiest nation in the world and in this city, we still have more than 300,000 people who still do not have basic healthcare coverage,” said Castro.

Mayor Julian Castro, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and health leaders discuss the ACA at CentroMed. Photo by Mary Tuma

Texas leads the nation in the highest number of uninsured residents, with 25 percent of citizens going without healthcare coverage. That means a massive opportunity to take advantage of the marketplace and the ACA benefits. However, the state’s conservative leadership, when given the choice, is finding ways to steadily block that opportunity, as the Current previously reported. In a crusade to oppose nearly everything the Obama administration proposes, Gov. Rick Perry rejected the ACA Medicaid expansion, effectively denying an estimated 2 million Texans healthcare coverage, despite the staggering need.

Sebelius notes there are 30 Democratic and Republican states moving forward on Medicaid expansion. “We hope very soon Texas will join that population.”

Perry also added extra regulations for federal healthcare navigators– trained professionals who assist with enrollment– like another 40 hours of training and periodic background checks. Democratic state representatives have criticized the move, calling it an effort to undermine the process and an intimidation tactic.

The Current asked Sebelius for her thoughts on Perry’s move to place extra requirements on federal navigators. She said navigators already have to pass tests, spend at least 20 hours in training and called the stipulations, “additional barriers.”

“It’s just a barrier to get folks trained in a timely fashion,” she said.

Referring to the heavy partisanship swirling around the ACA, Sebelius flatly said, "This is not a political debate, this is the law.”

“There clearly have been people that have been ferociously opposed to the expansion of health care for millions of Americans and continue to be,” she said. “And I think you saw the majority Republican members of the United States Congress shutting down the federal government in order to stop the law, to give you an indication of the seriousness of which this cause is important.”

Considering the adamant objection to the ACA, Sebelius says that even when the web site errors are finally corrected, the criticism of Obamacare won’t stop.

“I don’t expect [fixing the web site] to appease the critics,” said Sebelius. “Because they’re really not unhappy with the web site– they don’t like the law at all.”

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