How briefings became the flashpoint in the health-care battle

October 23, 2013
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 4, 2013. Under questioning from members of Congress, Sebelius testified that she made two phone calls to companies not regulated by HHS in an attempt to raise money for a nonprofit group called "Enroll America" intended to help lead a private-sector outreach campaign for implementation of the Affordable Care Act. (REUTERS/Jim Bourg)
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill on June 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Jim Bourg)

One indicator of how the new health-care law remains one of the most contentious laws of the land? House Republicans are now upset they're not getting a closed-door briefing on the law's implementation, so they can rake Health and Human Services officials over the coals for the online enrollment system's problems.

The most recent spat began after the House Democratic Caucus announced Tuesday afternoon that Mike Hash, who directs the Office of Health Reform at HHS, will brief House Democrats Wednesday about the issue behind closed doors.

That prompted Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), to e-mail reporters, questioning why his side of the aisle wasn't getting a similar briefing, especially since HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had declined an invitation to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday due to a scheduling conflict.

“ All members -- as well as the American people -- deserve answers for this debacle," Buck wrote. "This snub is all the more offensive after Secretary Sebelius declined to testify at a House hearing this week. It’s time for the Obama administration to honor its promises of transparency and face some accountability.”

Granted, White House and HHS officials have deflected most critical questions about the health-care Web site from both their political opponents and journalists by arguing that their focus now is on fixing it, not casting blame for the problems. But they were more than happy to talk about the new health-care law the week before the launch, when they not only offered briefings to several news outlets and groups of supporters, but to the House Republican leadership. The House GOP did not take the White House up on its invitation, according to Democratic officials who asked not to be identified given the sensitivity of the invitation.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said House Democrats have held briefings on the law's implementation "for months." Wednesday's "caucus meeting is yet another in this series of discussions," he said. "While we appreciate House Republicans’ newfound interest in the implementation of health reform, it is clear they are not interested in anything other than continuing their desperate drive to sabotage this law, which so far has included shutting down the government.”

Buck, who said his office was unaware of any offer of a meeting in September, said the real issue is whether GOP lawmakers would get a briefing now that the federal health insurance marketplace is experiencing serious problems.

"It's unclear how the White House could have offered to brief Congress on the failure of healthcare.gov at a time when it claimed to believe the site would work just fine," Buck wrote in an e-mail. "This was just a day before the president told the country that the site was going to work like Kayak or Amazon.com. But if this response means they'd like to brief us, we accept and hope to set one up at their earliest convenience."

The White House, for its part, doesn't seem too eager to answer every House Republican demand for information regarding the new health-care law.

Asked Tuesday if the White House would cooperate with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's request for information regarding the role of the administration's chief technology and chief information officers in overseeing the Web site, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "We cooperate with all legitimate congressional oversight."

The committee's chairman is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has been a steadfast critic of the administration. Asked what other kind of congressional oversight exists aside from "legitimate," Carney said: "This is Chairman Issa's committee? So we'll see."

"I'm just saying that I think everybody here who wasn't born yesterday has seen questionable congressional oversight in the past," Carney said. "I'm not saying in regard to this issue, I'm just saying in the past."

Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
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