Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius - AP photo
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to Americans Wednesday for the troubled rollout of the national health care law and its dysfunctional website.
"You deserve better," Sebelius said as she began her testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I apologize. I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems."
As GOP calls for her resignation grow louder, Sebelius is getting intense grilling from the panel - which is hearing from the embattled health care secretary for the first time since HealthCare.gov went live on Oct. 1.
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"Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible," Sebelius said after a heated exchange with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., about who was in charge of the website.
Asked for an accounting of federal dollars, Sebelius said the government so far has spent $118 million on the website and another $56 million on "IT support" for the website."
Sebelius' testimony comes the day after Marilyn Tavenner, the director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Obama administration official closest to the website's management, apologized for the botched rollout. In her opening remarks, Sebelius also sought to place some of the blame on government contractors building the website who "have not met expectations."
HealthCare.gov has been shaky since its debut on Oct. 1, when open enrollment began under the Affordable Care Act. The law, which passed with no Republican support, was signed by President Obama with great fanfare in 2010 as a key to overhauling the nation's complex health care system and providing insurance to millions of people who are currently without such coverage.
Obama has stood by Sebelius, a former Kansas governor, and has embarked on his own campaign to tout the law's benefits and move away from the website debacle. The president will speak Wednesday afternoon in Boston, to illustrate the success of Massachusetts' health care law - the basis for the Affordable Care Act.
Jeffrey Zients, a former White House budget deputy, said the site will be fixed by Nov. 30. Sebelius' prepared testimony says HHS has updated the website's technology with new code and help from experts inside and outside of government.
Sebelius said Wednesday that she feels good about the Nov. 30 date, noting that the department's assessment is that it will take that long for HealthCare.gov to be "an optimally functional" website.
"I have confidence ... but I know it isn't fair to the American people to take my word for it," she said. "I have to fix this."
But until HealthCare.gov gets a clean bill of health, congressional Republicans are sure to keep using the website as a focal point in their arguments that the law is an unwieldy and costly example of government intrusion. The GOP-led House has tried dozens of times to repeal the law, to no avail.
While the administration says more than 700,000 people have created accounts to buy insurance on state and federal health exchanges since Oct. 1, Tavenner and other officials have not disclosed how many people have actually enrolled through the online network.