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Sebelius Faced More Grilling From House, Despite Fixes


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

CORNISH: We begin this hour with the latest on two huge government challenges: the rollout of the new health care law and the budget. There are new, better numbers on enrollment in health plans and there's a new budget compromise. We'll hear about health care first. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified today for her third time since the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Here's NPR's Ailsa Chang on Capitol Hill.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The battleground had shifted since October. With a website operating radically more smoothly and a bumper crop of enrollments in November, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stared down her Republican interrogators with a little more ammunition this time.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Now, as more Americans give a second look, they're finding the experience is night and day compared to where we were back in October.

CHANG: The White House announced today more than 110,000 people had selected health plans on the federal exchange in November. That's about four times as many as in October. Of course, Sebelius said those numbers would have been higher and closer to projections had the flawed website not dampened enthusiasm for the health care law. So, Republicans like committee chair Fred Upton worked to keep Sebelius in apology mode.

REPRESENTATIVE FRED UPTON: So what grade, if you could give yourself - or not you but HHS - the grading of the launch, from A to E or incomplete, what would you give the...

Mr. Chairman, I've already said that I think the launch was flawed and failed and frustrating for millions of people, unacceptable.

CHANG: But Sebelius said it was time to move forward. That's why she's asked her inspector general to investigate how to avoid such a rollout debacle in the future. And in the meantime, the administration is going to focus on getting as many people signed up as possible in the coming months. Republican Mike Burgess of Texas reminded Sebelius that signing up before December 23rd doesn't mean you've got health coverage by January because you still need to actually pay by the end of the year. And he says doesn't offer an obvious way to do that.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE BURGESS: Do you know how hard it is to actually make that payment...


BURGESS: ...hold your billfold out and actually make the payment? Have you done that yourself?

SEBELIUS: I have not.

BURGESS: Well, I will tell you, it's almost impossible. I've never seen a business where you get to the point in the fundamental business transaction where you're going to make the payment and you can't do it. That is a flawed system.

CHANG: Democrats prodded members to be more courteous to the secretary today than they were last time. That seemed to egg on some Republicans like John Shimkus of Illinois, who's convinced premiums are going up largely because the new law forces insurance companies to cover some free preventive care. Shimkus kept cutting Sebelius off and Democrats told him to let her speak.

It's like talking to the Republic of Korea or something. Last question...


REPRESENTATIVE JOHN SHIMKUS: Through the great works...

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK PALLONE: Mr. Chairman, you have to let - we said...

SHIMKUS: I do not have...

PALLONE: We said we were going to let the secretary answer the question.

SHIMKUS: The gentleman controls the time. If the Democrats want to yield some time...

PALLONE: Yeah, I know. But you have to leave her the opportunity to answer the question. We all agreed...

SHIMKUS: I do not have to allow her to answer the question.

PALLONE: Yes, you do. We all agreed on that at the beginning.

CHANG: Back in October, Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey had compared the first hearing on the health care rollout to a monkey court. This time, Pallone compared his Republican colleagues to aliens instead of apes.

PALLONE: Sometimes I think that they're living on Mars rather than Earth. I heard consequences, things like disastrous consequences, harm, suffering, harsh reality, world turned outside down. I mean, they should have been at my forum. I had a forum Monday night in Highland Park, which was one of my towns, on the ACA, and I heard just the opposite.

CHANG: But even the White House concedes it has work to do. The federal exchange is still lagging behind state exchanges. Of all the people who signed up last month, more than half enrolled through the marketplaces run by 14 states. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.