HHS Sec under fire on Capitol amid problems

WASHINGTON (AP/WCIV) - President BarackObama claimed "full responsibility" Wednesday for fixing his administration'smuch-maligned health insurance website as a new concern surfaced: a governmentmemo pointing to security worries, laid out just days before the launch.

On Capitol Hill, Health andHuman Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to frustrated peopletrying to sign up, declaring that she is accountable for the failures but alsodefending the historic health care overhaul. The website sign-up problems willbe fixed by Nov. 30, she said, and the gaining of health insurance will make apositive difference in the lives of millions of Americans.

The website wasstill experiencing outages as Sebelius faced a new range of questions at theHouse Energy and Commerce Committee about a security memo from her department.It revealed that the troubled website was granted a temporary securitycertificate on Sept. 27, just four days before it went live on Oct. 1.

The memo, obtained by TheAssociated Press, said incomplete testing created uncertainties that posed apotentially high security risk for the website. It called for a six-month"mitigation" program, including ongoing monitoring and testing.

Security issues raise major newconcerns on top of the long list of technical problems the administration isgrappling with.

"You accepted a risk onbehalf of every user ... that put their personal financial information atrisk," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told Sebelius, citing the memo."Amazon would never do this. ProFlowers would never do this. Kayak wouldnever do this. This is completely an unacceptable level of security."

Sebelius countered that thesystem is secure, even though the site's certificate, known in governmentparlance as an "authority to operate," is of a temporary nature. Apermanent certificate will be issued only when all security issues areaddressed, she stressed.

Republicans opposed to Obama'shealth care law are calling for Sebelius to resign. She apologized to peoplehaving trouble signing up but told the committee that the technical issues thatled to frozen screens and error messages are being cleared up on a daily basis.

Sebelius' forthright statementabout her ultimate accountability for problems with the sign-up rollout came asRep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., peppered her with questions about the"debacle."

"Hold me accountable forthe debacle," Sebelius responded. "I'm responsible."

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the rankingDemocrat on the committee, scoffed at Republican "oversight" of a lawthey have repeatedly tried to repeal.

"I would urge mycolleagues to stop hyperventilating," said Waxman. "The problems are unfortunate and we should investigate them, but they will befixed. And then every American will have, finally have, access to affordablehealth insurance."

The website wasintended to be the online gateway to coverage for millions of uninsuredAmericans, as well those who already purchase their policies individually. Manypeople in the latter group will have to get new insurance next year, becausetheir policies do not meet the standards of the new law.

She parried questions aboutproblems with the website as well as a wave of cancellation notices hittingindividuals and small businesses who buy their own insurance. Those notices arecoming because many existing individual policies are too skimpy to meet thelaw's requirements. The administration says consumers affected will be able tofind better coverage.

It's something local healthcare brokers are advising people be proactive and research their options soonerrather than later.

"If you can get a policy issueon you now, that policy will most likely be less expensive than a somewhatcomparable policy that will be offered come January first." said ChuckPeterson, a health care broker with Wynn Insurance in Mount Pleasant.

He says as of the first of theyear companies will no longer be able to turn people away based on pre-existingconditions, which will cause the premiums rates to jump. Peterson says peoplesearching for plans need to find out if they qualify for a government subsidy.

"If they can qualify for asubsidy to help them pay for an individual plan through the exchange that is agood thing, if not based on their income, then they will have to apply for apolicy off the exchange, in order to have a plan that would be considered legalunder ACA," said Peterson.

According to Peterson, thereare six companies that offer plans in South Carolina. Four of the companies are on the exchange;two are not. Peterson says right now doing a cost comparison seems impossiblebecause of the problems with the website.

"You're either going to buy apolicy off the exchange in order to get that subsidy and lower your insurancepremium or if you don't qualify, you're going to look at the companies that areactually doing business off the exchange and offering the same types ofpolicies without being able to receive that subsidy," said Peterson.

Peterson says another importantdecision to consider is which insurance company network your doctor andhospital are located. He says consumers can check which provider is in networkby checking the insurance companies' websites.

Starting Jan. 1, most Americanswill be required to carry health insurance or face fines. At the same time,insurance companies will no longer be able to turn away people in poor health.The law provides subsidized private insurance for middle-class people who don'tget health care on the job. Low-income people can access an expanded version ofMedicaid in states that agree to expand that safety net program.

Congressional Republicans haveintroduced competing versions of legislation to let insurance companiescontinue selling coverage that has been available, freeing them from arequirement to cancel policies that do not meet the standards established inthe law.

One bill in the House, authoredby Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan,would cover the sale of policies providing individual coverage through 2014.

Republican officials said theHouse was likely to vote on the issue next month.

Meanwhile, Obama spent the dayat the site where Massachusetts'health care system became law to promote his signature health insuranceprogram, arguing that the state plan also faced initial setbacks and lowenrollment but in time gained popularity and became a success.

"All the parade ofhorribles, the worst predictions about health care reform in Massachusetts never came true," hesaid. "They're the same arguments that you're hearing now."

The Massachusetts' law provided the model forthe federal health insurance overhaul. Obama spoke in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, whereMassachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney was joined by the late DemocraticSen. Ted Kennedy to sign the state's 2006 health care overhaul bill.

The president pointed tobenefits already available under the 3-year-old health care law, includingending discrimination against children with pre-existing conditions andpermission to keep young people on their parents' insurance plans until theyturn 26.

But he conceded the troubledlaunch of the open enrollment period that began Oct. 1.

"I am not happy aboutit," he said.