HHS Secretary Sebelius Issues Tardy Response

Feb 14, 2013

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg.

It took longer for Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to respond to a request for a public comment extension than the length of the extension itself. Here’s the story.

Last November, just before Thanksgiving, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Treasury, and Labor issued three proposed rules on essential health benefits, insurance market rules, wellness, and other provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). A few days after Thanksgiving, the administration issued another proposed rule dealing with the reinsurance program. All four are considered to be “economically significant” (costing more than $100 million). Yet, for all of them, the public only had 30 days to comment (or less).

In mid-December, ten Senators sent a letter to Secretaries Kathleen Sebelius, Tim Geithner, and Hilda Solis requesting an extension of the comment period to at least 60 days. Geithner and Solis left the administration without responding, but Secretary Sebelius answered the Senators on February 12, stating that a short, 30-day comment period was needed to be “responsive to the fact that states, issuers, and other stakeholders are waiting for the final rules to prepare for 2014.”

Ironically, it took Sebelius 63 days to respond to the Senators’ request for a 60-day minimum public comment period, a prolonged waiting period that stands in stark contrast to the length of time it takes her agency to pump out health care law regulations. In the case of proposed rule on Medicaid expansion, HHS jiggered it to only allow 22 days for public comment.

The health care law is a massive undertaking. A bill that’s over 2,000 pages is generating thousands of pages more in new regulations—704 pages just from the proposed rules cited by the Senators. The administration had two years to methodically implement it. Could it have been that it didn’t want to draw voters’ attention to the unpopular health care law ahead of the 2014 elections? Now, following the president’s reelection, it has become a regulatory sprint to 2014 when state health insurance exchanges must begin operating. Businesses and state and local governments need time to wade through proposed rules and offer constructive criticism. Investing the time now will make for fewer headaches in the future.

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