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Sebelius: Hold Me Accountable for the Debacle; Obamacare Site Down During Hearing; What is Obamacare?

Aired October 30, 2013 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And to our viewers, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're covering these historic hearings that took place today up on Capitol Hill. Kathleen Sebelius clearly in the hot seat today, answering questions from members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans. Some very, very testy questions. All of our reporters, our analysts are standing by. Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill. Gloria Borger is here with me. So is Elizabeth Cohen. We've got our White House team in place. We're going to have full analysis right now.

Let's go to Dana Bash up on Capitol Hill.

You watched these three and a half hours, Dana. Give us your thought how this went down because, as I say, the whole -- I think a lot of people were watching.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly people who are genuinely interested in trying to get answers that they don't have. There's no question the secretary came with every intention of falling on her sword and she did several times, making clear that she was wrong in thinking that this Web site would be up and running, that people would be able to activate it on October 1st. She told the president it would be ready and she was wrong to do that. She outwardly and right off the bat apologized.

But what I also thought was interesting, beyond the sort of show that you see in so many of these kinds of high-profile hearings, a real attempt on both sides, but mostly by Democrats, to try to explain something that we have been hearing about particularly over the past week or so that so many people across the country are losing their health care policies that they actually say that they like. And her trying to explain that the reason is because those policies don't have the minimum requirements under the Obama health care law.

But she insisted because there are so many more options now because of Obamacare, people can eventually get a lower priced health care policies. But that was very difficult for her to explain because it is a confusing process. And you saw Republican after Republican showing stories, telling anecdotes about their constituents having problems getting on Web site.

So, that was an important kind of learning experience that people who are watching this could get, understanding why if they got a letter from their health insurance company they were losing their health care and what they could do in the future. But, of course, because you have a lot of Republicans, in fact all of the Republicans there, opposed the law to begin with, it was a little bit interesting to hear them complain about the process that they didn't want to happen in the first place.

BLITZER: Dana, stand by for a moment. I want to play a clip. This is an exchange that Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, had with Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee.


REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), TENNESSEE: So, who is responsible for overseeing this project? Is it you or your designee?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, SECRETARY, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: Let me be clear. I'm not pointing fingers at Verizon. I'm trying to explain the way the site operates. We are -- we own the site. The site has had serious problems. I know --

BLACKBURN: Who was in charge, madam secretary?

SEBELIUS: The person now in charge as an integrator is QSSI, one of our --

BLACKBURN: Who was in charge as it was being built?

SEBELIUS: -- (INAUDIBLE) was in charge up until --

BLACKBURN: At that team, who is the individual?

SEBELIUS: Michelle Snyder is the --

BLACKBURN: Michelle Snyder is the one responsible for this debacle?

SEBELIUS: Well, excuse me, Congresswoman, Michelle Snyder is not responsible for the debacle. Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible.

BLACKBURN: OK. Thank you, I yield back.


BLITZER: All right. That was a powerful exchange right there.

Gloria Borger is here. Elizabeth Cohen is here. There were a lot of those testy exchanges between Republican members of the committee and Sebelius.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, at a certain point, there's only so many times Kathleen Sebelius could fall on her sword. She said it in 50 different ways. She said, I'm responsible, you know, the buck stops with her. She said she was miserably frustrated, I think was the -- was the phrase, by all of this. So, you sort of got to that. She took responsibility for this.

She also took responsibility for telling the president that they were ready to go. And said that no one anticipated this level of problems. I think what we saw today was a very decentralized process where, in fact, it seemed like in funneling all of this, not everybody knew the problems everybody else was having and there didn't seem to be one kind of decision maker who could say, wait a minute, all of this is a real problem and we shouldn't go ahead with it.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you a project manager I know, a very successful one, said it seems like on this project, there was no one wringable neck. And if you don't have one wringable neck, projects often go awry as this one seems to have.

BLITZER: You would have thought that something as significant as the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislative achievement of the president, they would have had a point person at least involved in every step of the way, reporting to Kathleen Sebelius every week, to the president of the United States every week. We've got this. We've got this or at the end of September saying, we're not ready into this.

COHEN: I think what this attests to is that there's a difference between setting policy and being good at setting policy and making that policy happen and then actually doing the nuts and bolts work of making that policy function correctly. I think those are two different things.

BORGER: And then, also, informing the American public about why, for example, that some insurers might cancel insurance. This is why. When you go into a risk pool, as Dana was talking about, why it might cost you a little bit more. But the extent of your coverage will be broader. You know, and all of these issues that where you have three years to kind of explain to people. And I know people don't pay attention until the very end but it seems to me that the education process here was really lacking.

BLITZER: Let me go back to Dana up on the Hill. Dana, this is the first major hearing where Kathleen Sebelius herself was testifying but there are other House committees, presumably Senate committees, they're going to want her to testify as well, including Congressman Darrell Issa's committee. Where do we go from here?

BASH: Well, we understand that she is going to testify before a Senate committee, the counterpart committee, the finance committee likely next week. That is going to be probably friendlier territory because the Senate, of course, has the majority of Democrats. The majority of Democrats will be on the committee. Maybe not so much in terms of the questioning. It sort of depends where we get -- where we are when we get there because, you know, certainly a lot of the focus of the Democrats in the House and probably will be in the future of the Senate was to talk about the good things that the Affordable Care Act is doing for Americans. But also, again, to try to penetrate some of the massive confusion that is going on out there with regard to the law. So, you're probably going to see a lot more of that.

You know, what's interesting to me in that there were a lot of questions at this House hearing about who should be fired, about whether, you know, the guy who runs the Web site should be fired, about the one -- the one who -- the woman who runs CMS should be fired. But because she -- Sebelius came out of the box apologizing, came out of the box saying that she should be held accountable but that she serves (INAUDIBLE) of the president even though she has really been poster woman for what she admitted was a debacle, you didn't see outright calling for her to resign but you did see a lot of sort of a show of questioning whether or not she's doing the right thing.

For one example -- one example I'll give you, rather, is questioning by a couple of Republican Congressmen about why she personally hasn't signed onto the exchange, something just as a leader you would think that she would do just to sort of show that she's in it with everybody else. You know, she gave some perhaps legitimate answers about what is required of her and not. But whether it's required or not, you would think just as -- just for pure politics, she would have done that. And Republicans clearly pounced on that.

BLITZER: I want -- I want you to listen to this exchange she had with Gregg Harper, the Republican Congressman from Mississippi.


REP. GREGG HARPER (R), MISSISSIPPI: Was the president not ultimately responsible like a company's CEO would be?

SEBELIUS: Sir, he's the president of the United States. I have given him regular reports and those -- I am responsible for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. That's what he asked me to do --

HARPER: So, --

SEBELIUS: -- and that's what I'll continue to do.

HARPER: -- you're saying that the president is not responsible for HHS?

SEBELIUS: Sir, I didn't say that.

HARPER: OK. So, the president ultimately is responsible. While I think it's great that you're a team player and you're taking responsibility, it is the president's ultimate responsibility, correct?

SEBELIUS: You clearly -- whatever, yes. He is the president. He is responsible for government programs.


BLITZER: She clearly, Gloria, was trying to protect the president from this clear --


BLITZER: -- what's been a Web site fiasco.

BORGER: But, you know, as we were just talking about before, there -- you get to a certain point and it's -- she just sort of threw up her hands and said, whatever. You know, at a certain point, she took responsibility. She said she brought it to the president. She didn't anticipate this level of problems. She fell on her sword. Move on. And some people had some difficulty, honestly, in doing that.

BLITZER: And it looks like even if they were told repeatedly throughout going in -- throughout the month of September, there are some serious problems, she did repeatedly say, those four contractors, none of them said delay the launch of the entire Web site.

COHEN: Yes, I mean, so there was a piece of this that I thought was very interesting where she said the products were not locked and loaded into the system until the third week of September. So, when you don't have your products being locked and loaded into a Web site until the third week of September and you're starting October 1st, like, that in and of itself should have told them a lot that they just weren't going to be ready.

BORGER: Well, that's why it was -- it was so remarkable that nobody ever -- she said nobody ever told her specifically to delay the entire project. And, obviously, there's a lot riding on it. But when you've informed the president of the United States that you're ready to go, you should be ready to go.

BLITZER: Yes. And they clearly were not ready to go and they're paying a significant price for that right now. Guys, stand by for a moment. We're going to have extensive coverage this hour of what unfolded during those three and a half hours of grueling testimony by the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. Much more right after this.


BLITZER: It was a real-time dose of reality, this morning's Congressional hearing when Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn called for the Obamacare Web site to be pulled up live on a big screen in the hearing room. Watch this.


BLACKBURN: Let's put the screen shot up. I want to go to the cost of the Web site and talk about the Web site. This is what is happening right now with this Web site. We've had somebody in the back trying to sign on. It is down. It is not working. Last week, I asked for the cost from each of the contractors that were with us last week. So, can you give me a ballpark of what you have spent on this Web site that does not work that individuals cannot get to? What is your cost estimate?

SEBELIUS: So far, Congresswoman, we have spent about $118 million on the Web site itself and about $56 million has been expended on other I.T. to support the Web.


BLITZER: Let's discuss what's going on. Joining us now, CNN Political Commentator and columnist for "The Blaze," Will Cain, also the writer and commentator, progressive activist, Sally Kohn, right?


BLITZER: Sally Kohn. I want to make sure it's not Kohn. It's Sally Kohn. All right, thanks, guys, very much for joining us. And Sally's got an article she wrote on entitled "A Canceled Health Plan is a Good Thing." Quickly, Sally, explain why a canceled health plan is a good thing?

KOHN: Well, Marsha Blackburn had a great metaphor today about, you know, some people want to drive Fords, some people want to drive Ferraris. But back in the 1970s, there was the Ford Pinto and the Ford Pinto had this bad habit of just catching on fire. It was unsafe. It wasn't the auto companies that were going to fix these problems, it was government stepping in and saying, we're not going to let companies make these unsafe and dangerous cars.

It's the same thing today. A lot of people have private insurance policies that are going to, metaphorically, explode on them. And the moment they get sick, drop them for coverage, force them into bankruptcy. And now, thanks to Obamacare, those policies are no longer going to be an option. That is generally in our better interests both in controlling costs and providing quality care to more Americans and people are going to see more affordable options that they can move into. That's the facts.

BLITZER: All right, Will, go ahead. That's a fact she said.

WILL CAIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I'm glad we're talking about the parts of Obamacare that are actually working. You know, the Web site and Marsha Blackburn's -- what she's making self-evident to us that it's not working, that it's not functional. That's one side of it.

The other side is the part of Obamacare that's actually working. And, Wolf, I don't know how to say this than just to say it the way it is. The first thing you have to - the first step you take is you expose the lie. Did President Obama not say continuously, if you like your health care, you can keep it? That's false. Apparently what he meant is, if he likes your health care, he can keep it.

Now Sally's rationalization is that, but we're replacing it with something better. And, listen, I like Sally, but this is something that we're hearing not just from the commentators like Sally, but from the administration, from lawmakers. And I want you to think of the arrogance of that perspective, the conceit of telling you this is better. According to whom? By whose definition is something better? A plan that forces men to buy maternity care, a plan that forces childless 50-year-olds to buy pediatric eye exams? What is better? Is it what every tells us is better?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Sally, go ahead.

SALLY KOHN, COLUMNIST, ACTIVIST: Well, you know, I think people -- Americans would agree with me that seat belts and air bags are safer and better, but, you know, like I said, those weren't required until government stepped in.

Look, let's turn to the bigger picture here that Will's bringing up. This was not a hearing. This was harassment. This was Republicans who are tired of flogging the Obamacare bill saying, all right, we're going to turn around and try and flog Kathleen Sebelius. The irony is, this is the same committee up there trying to say, oh, we're so concerned that people now can't sign up for this thing that we wanted to destroy in the first place, and, meanwhile, we've been working for weeks to try and log with all these paper requests and all these data processing things and overwhelm all the other places that people can go up around the country to sign up other than the website. So they're literally trying to destroy the path to Obamacare at every point. They have no credibility to have a hearing like this.

BLITZER: All right, Will, go ahead.

CAIN: I just -- at some point, you know, I do - I actually think it's not serviceable for conservative commentators like myself or lawmakers to be the ones voicing this message. I'm telling you, the problems with Obamacare are self-evident. And I'm tempted to say, the problems with the website are symbolic. They show that government can't meet the minimum threshold. The minimum threshold. Access to reforming the health care market. Not to mention what they have to do after that. But it's more than symbolic, Wolf, and Congressman Rogers pointed that out. The failures of the website are not just about functionality. They're about security. This is apparently something we knew ahead of time, that all these Americans who gave their private data, financial data, health data, that wasn't secure. It was very capable of being breached. This is a problem. A huge problem.

BLITZER: You know, Sally, that was an issue that really came to the fore. Mike Rogers, who's a member of this committee but he's also the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he's a very serious guy as both of you know and a lot of viewers know, as well. When he says information you're putting into the system right now, whether your Social Security Number or your wealth or how much money you earn, stuff like that, which is pretty sensitive, could be compromised relatively easily, that raises a lot of fears out there.

KOHN: Yes, look, and I'm not here to defend the website. And I wrote another piece for CNN last week making it very clear, the website stinks, right, and these problems need to be fixed. And it's appropriate to have hearings to sort of call out what went wrong in that. But the website isn't Obamacare. The website is not Obamacare. And the reason Republicans are in such a hurry to try and destroy this law in any way they can and throw up obstacles everywhere they can, including stopping people from signing up, including stopping the money to fix the website and to build it in the if first place, is because it's getting more and more popular as people see that quality of care is going to go up and costs are going to go down and Republicans are going to have no leg to stand on so they're in this mad dash to try and destroy it before we realize we all like it.

BLITZER: You want to respond to that quickly, Will?

CAIN: Oh, I - yes, just when I think my presence is unnecessary, it's (INAUDIBLE), that the problems of Obamacare are self-evident, then Sally can turn this into something about Republicans. It's not. This isn't about Republicans. I think everyone who's gone to can see this has nothing to do with conservatives and Republicans anymore. And we have been saying, if there's one point in our -- feather in our cap, this is going to have problems. And I will give you this, Sally, the problems with Obamacare, in the long run, will have very little to do with the website and they'll have to do with the policy itself and the inability to restructure one-fifth of our economy.

KOHN: I'll take that, Will, any day. I signed up and I saved money.

BLITZER: You know, Sally, I'll just wrap it up with this note. I've covered this specific hearing, Energy and -- this committee for a long time, Energy and Commerce. The Democrats were the majority for a long time. Henry Waxman was the chairman of this committee for a long time. John Dingell before him was the chairman. If you think this was a testy hearing today, go back and take a look at some of the hearings that either Dingell or Waxman chaired going after Bush administration officials on all sorts of issues. It was at least as -- you called it harassment. It was at least of as tough as it was today, and probably even tougher. Those guys were pretty powerful, Pretty strong chair - chairmen. This specific committee has got a reputation for being tough on the opposite party, if you will, if they're the majority in the House. Just a little footnote from the hearings that I've seen over the years involving this specific committee.

Hey, guys, thanks very much.

KOHN: A pleasure being on with you.

CAIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead, Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us with a reminder of what's in Obamacare and what's not in Obamacare.

Later on, the "Crossfire" hosts get ready. Newt Gingrich and Van Jones. They are here.


BLITZER: While the focus of this morning's congressional hearing was on the problems with the Obamacare website, there's much more to the discussion than simply that. Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta is joining us now from the CNN Center.

Sanjay, it's not just about the signup site. Remind our viewers quickly what Obamacare is all about.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's a good question, Wolf. I mean the website certainly is about improving increasing access to health care. But there are a lot of other things that the president outlined in his speech in the Rose Garden, as well. Some of that we've talked about quite a bit. Insurance companies will keep children up to age 26 on their parents' plan. They will close the doughnut hole, this idea of improving as far as costs go for Medicare recipients. Free preventive care. These are for all people, Wolf, not just for people who are joining the marketplace.

Also, insurance companies can't have caps anymore in terms of how much they can pay. So those are some protections.

And, remember, Wolf, you and I talked about this over the last couple of years, describing this in some ways more like insurance reform than health care reform because many of those protections and benefits you just saw there are sort of mandates on the insurance companies in terms of how they behave with their customers.

BLITZER: All right, for the folks who are watching right now, they're confused, who needs to really deal with this entire signup process?

GUPTA: Well, as far as the signup, and again the website part of this, it's really people who don't have insurance now either because they can't afford it, maybe because they have a pre-existing condition, and also for people who have chosen not to buy it. They can afford it but they've chosen not to buy it. So it's really that group of people. And, you know, right now, the estimates are that about 15 million people are sort of on the -- getting insurance on their own. And so, you know, you're talking about a - about 5 or so percent of the population, Wolf.

BLITZER: We know, Sanjay, the administration got plenty of warnings about the website before the launch. We've got the documents in early September, September 6th, there were some significant warnings. You asked her about that in your exclusive interview last week with Kathleen Sebelius. You asked if the president was aware of those warnings, as well. Listen to what she told you.


GUPTA: Do you know when he first knew that there was a problem?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Well, I think it became clear fairly early on. The first couple of days that --

GUPTA: So not before that though?


GUPTA: Not before October 1st? There was no concern at that point, either in the White House or at HHS?

SEBELIUS: I think that we talked about having testing going forward and if we had an ideal situation and could have built a product in, you know, a five-year period of time, we probably would have taken five years, but we didn't have five years. And certainly Americans who rely on health coverage didn't have five years for to us wait.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: They did have, what, three years, three and a half years. You know the president. I know the president. I'm sure he said, why didn't somebody at least tell me there were some problems and maybe we could have made a different decision? But, you know, you hear her say that, you know, to you the other day, and what she's saying today, I'm sure the president must be pretty furious right now that nobody bothered to tell him that we've got a serious problem here.

GUPTA: Yes, I mean considering the significance of this certainly for his presidency and this administration overall. It's interesting, Wolf, I listened very carefully today and the secretary of health added a little bit more detail to it saying, look, we knew there was problems, but the bottom line, again her saying this, is that the contractors indicated that they were going to be good to go on October 1st. And perhaps that's why they didn't convey a message specifically to the president.

We also know, Wolf, and you've been reporting this morning, that there's an internal memo that shows that the administration was made aware of some of these problems. But again, whether that was taken to President Obama or not, that was just unclear.

BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta, thanks very much. Always good to have your perspective.

GUPTA: You got it.

BLITZER: This important programming note for our viewers. Later tonight, 6:00 p.m. Eastern, we'll have a special edition of "The Situation Room," "Obamacare Under Fire." 6:00 p.m. Eastern, tune in for that.

Guess who's coming in to the NEWSROOM right now, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich. There -- you just tweeted something explosive, Newt, and we're going to talk about this when we come back. Van, thank you. Newt, thank you.