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Sebelius pledges review of botched Obamacare site rollout

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday pledged a “relentless” push to continue improving the HealthCare.gov website and formally announced an inspector general review of the process that led to its botched rollout.

“The initial launch of HealthCare.gov was flawed, frustrating and unacceptable, and I believe strongly in accountability and our obligations as public servants to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” she said during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Now that the website is working more smoothly, I am determined that it’s the right time to begin a process of better understanding of the structural and managerial policies that led to the flawed launch so we can take action and avoid those problems in the future.”

Sebelius said that she has asked the Inspector General of the Health and Human Services Department to investigate the development of the troubled site and the acquisition of the contractor charged with building it. She added that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will also be expanding employee training on contracting practices and creating a new permanent position of “Chief Risk Officer” to help mitigate risks in the agency’s major initiatives.

Sebelius acknowledged that the botched website had a “dampening” effect on Americans’ enthusiasm for the new health care law but that the administration is seeing “positive trends” as previously discouraged users try again to sign up for coverage.

“We are seeing very, very positive trends,” she said at the hearing. “We are seeing people re-engage.”

Sebelius faced aggressive questioning from Republicans critical of relatively modest enrollment data and of cancellations of existing plans that don’t meet the Affordable Care Act’s requirements.

“Far too many Americans who were happy and satisfied with their health care coverage on Jan. 1 of this year have had their worlds turned upside down as we approach Jan. 1 of 2014,” said House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan.

During one heated exchange over the accuracy of the department's estimates of new enrollments, Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois told Sebelius that the back-and-forth with her was "like talking to the Republic of Korea or something."

Asked if she believes HHS should have delayed the October launch of the site, Sebelius said she would have done more beta testing and directed a “slower” rollout but that Americans needed time to explore options before benefits went into effect on Jan. 1.

“On balance, I am not sure what the right answer is,” she said.

The administration announced Wednesday that 365,000 individuals had purchased health insurance on the new state and federal exchanges in October and November. An additional 803,000 were determined to be eligible for Medicaid.

Individuals have until Dec. 23 to enroll in health coverage that would begin Jan. 1.

Public approval of the health care law has sagged since the botched rollout in October. In a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out Wednesday, just 34 percent of respondents said they believe the law is a good idea, while 50 percent said it is a bad idea.