Sebelius on the Hill: What Will We Learn?

Now that Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has agreed to testify before a House committee on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, questions remain about what lawmakers will learn and how her testimony may impact the law.

Sebelius will be questioned by members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee on October 30, nearly one month into the ACA’s open enrollment period. The rollout has been plagued by glitches, data mix-ups and weak enrollment numbers. In an address Monday, President Obama said there was “no excuse” for the website’s issues and that no one was more upset about the glitches than he was.

“For those who have had some problems with the website, I want to tell you what we're doing to make it work better and how you can sign up to get covered in other ways," Obama said in the address.

What Will Sebelius Be Asked?

While Sebelius had rebuked repeated requests to testify over the past several weeks, Republican strategist John Ullyot, a former Senate Republican aide, says the hearing is a positive step forward.

“She is coming out and facing the music,” Ullyot says. “You can expect her to face a strong grilling about why everything was allowed to go wrong when [the administration] had three years to get this right, and also how something this important, as far as a priority for the administration, got handled so shoddily.”

Larry Kocot, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, says he wouldn’t be surprised if she testifies more than once on the Hill, but that the first hearing will focus on what Sebelius knew, and when she knew it.

“Obama says he is madder than anyone else about this, and if he is pointing to the website as an initial failure, he too seems to agree this wasn’t done right,” Kocot says. “If he is pointing to this, others will want to know as well.”

How Will the Testimony Impact the ACA?

The testimony from Sebelius will likely result in yet another negative headline for the ACA, says Kocot, as empathy for consumers that are unable to purchase coverage on the site grows.

“There is a provision that says if you don’t have access to an affordable plan, or can’t access one, you will not be penalized,” Kocot says. “It’s certainly not a good headline, but it all depends on how Sebelius answers the questions.”

And while there is growing support within the GOP to rollback the individual mandate, Ullyot says there isn’t enough momentum to make this a reality at the moment.

“Possibly, with enough attention brought to the problems that Americans are having, there could be a consensus around delaying the implementation of this until it is fixed or slowing things down until we get this right,” he says.

Will Sebelius Be Forced to Resign?

There have been a few calls from Republican lawmakers for Sebelius to step down, but Ullyot says it’s too soon to tell.

“It's unclear right now, but it is a good thing that she is stepping up,” Ullyot says.

Kocot says Sebelius’s job is safe, as forcing her resignation over the rollout won’t solve any issues related to the ACA.

“I think we will find out, depending on whether or not the committee is satisfied with the level of scrutiny [Sebelius faces] that she is not the only one involved in the management of these benefits and rollout,” he says. “In terms of the timeline, was the rollout given adequate time, and was this realistic from the beginning? There are a lot of moving pieces.”