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In three and a half grueling hours of testimony before a House committee, Ms. Sebelius apologized for the missteps and problems in efforts to carry out the president’s most important domestic initiative.
But nothing Ms. Sebelius said at the hearing could overcome the stark message displayed on a large video screen that showed a page from HealthCare.gov: “The system is down at the moment. We are experiencing technical difficulties and hope to have them resolved soon. Please try again later.”
That message undercut Ms. Sebelius’s statements that the federal online insurance marketplace was improving every day and would be fully functional and able to accommodate millions of users by Nov. 30 — two weeks before the deadline for buying coverage on Jan. 1.
Ms. Sebelius, testifying under oath before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said she had told Mr. Obama that “we were ready to go” with the insurance website before it opened on Oct. 1.
“Clearly I was wrong,” she said.
In her testimony, Ms. Sebelius came across as a hapless official, aloof from many operational decisions about the website, which was conceived as a shopping mall for health insurance products.
She said she was as surprised as anyone when the website collapsed on Oct. 1, under pressure from millions of users, and was crippled by technical problems in subsequent days.
“No one anticipated this level of problems,” Ms. Sebelius said. While she was aware of the risks in operating a big new system, she said, “no one indicated that this could possibly go this wrong.”
In hindsight, she said, “we should have anticipated, we should have planned better, we should have tested better.”
Ms. Sebelius told the committee: “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”
She said she had given “regular reports” to Mr. Obama, and she acknowledged that, as chief executive, he was ultimately “responsible for government programs.”
At the same time, Ms. Sebelius said that a government contractor, Terremark, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications, was responsible for failures that disrupted the website on Sunday and again on Tuesday and Wednesday.