WASHINGTON - Republicans in Congress chastised President Barack Obama's top health adviser on Thursday for declining to testify before an oversight panel about problems in rolling out the president's signature healthcare program known as Obamacare.
Less than a day after Congress ended a 16-day partial government shutdown precipitated by Republican demands to delay or defund Obamacare, they sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanding she make officials available for the Oct 24 hearing.
The online insurance exchanges that are a central part of Obamacare rolled out on Oct 1 despite the shutdown but have been hobbled by technical difficulties that Sebelius has said are being fixed.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing is titled: "Implementation Failures: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose?" The letter from majority members of the committee said they invited Sebelius on Oct 11 to appear at the hearing, only to learn on Wednesday that she would not attend. The administration has not agreed to provide other administration officials, the letter added.
"It's well past time for the administration to be straight and transparent with the American people," said a separate statement by Republican Representative Fred Upton, who chairs the panel.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had no immediate comment.
A spokeswoman for the panel's Republican majority did not respond to a Reuters inquiry about whether subpoenas would be issued by the committee.
Upton said top administration officials had previously said that everything was on track, but the broad technological failures revealed that was not the case. "Either the administration was not ready for launch, or it was not up to the job," he said. Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is expected to provide private health coverage to an estimated 7 million uninsured Americans through the new online marketplaces that opened for enrollment in all 50 states on Oct 1.
But the website Healthcare.gov, the administration's online portal for consumers in 36 states, was hobbled by technical issues - including error messages, garbled text and delays loading pages - that administration officials partly blame on an unexpectedly high volume of 14.6 million visitors in its first 10 days.
Sebelius recently appeared on the cable-television comedy program, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" for an interview that focused on the website's problems.