The Cabinet secretary responsible for Obamacare apologized Wednesday to Americans frustrated by the glitch-prone website that has blocked them from comparing and enrolling in health insurance plans.
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, called it “a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans.”
“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of healthcare.gov,” she told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize.”
Just Tuesday, the site crashed for the second time in a week when a data center owned by Verizon went down.
The Obama administration has pledged to fix the site by Nov. 30. Sebelius told the committee that the administration is committed to solving the problems. She said that the site has never “crashed” but is functional — just unreliable and slow.
“I know that the only way I can restore confidence to get it right is to get it right,” she said. “So I have confidence, but I know it isn’t fair to ask the American people to take our word for it. I’ve got to fix this problem.”
A federal health care official told Congress on Tuesday that 700,000 people had submitted applications through the federal and state health insurance marketplaces. But Sebelius said Wednesday that the administration has no “reliable data” for how many have successfully enrolled. She said that she expected reliable data by mid-November.
“It will be a very small number,” she said, both because of the flawed launch of the website and because of expected enrollment trends, including what happened when Massachusetts launched its own health care program in 2006.
Critics of Obamacare have also seized on complaints from Americans whose health insurance plans have been canceled because they do not meet coverage standards set by the new law.
Those critics say that the cancellations contradict repeated assurances from President Barack Obama that Americans who liked their health plans would be allowed to keep them.
“Some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Sebelius at the House hearing Wednesday. “You’re taking away their choice.”
The White House has said that the cancellations apply only to the 5 percent of Americans who buy insurance on the individual market, not the 80 percent who are covered by their employers.
The administration has also argued that the individual market has been “like the Wild West” — poorly regulated and leaving people subject to the whims of insurance companies, which before Obamacare could easily deny coverage and hike premiums.
“They can get health insurance,” Sebelius said, answering Blackburn. “They must be offered new plans, new options” — either through the federal marketplace or outside it.
Pressed by the congresswoman on who was responsible for the failures, Sebelius said: “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”
She said that two weeks had “clearly not” been enough time to test the site before it launched.
The secretary, asked about warning signs before the launch that there would be glitches, said that “everyone was concerned that there were risks and there were likely to be problems.”
“I don’t think anyone ever estimated the degree to which we’ve had problems in the system,” she said.
Sebelius inaccurately characterized one provision of the health care law.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., asked her why she wouldn’t drop her own employer-provided health plan and join the online marketplace. She answered that it would be illegal: “If I have affordable coverage in my workplace, I am not eligible to go into the marketplace. It’s part of the law.”
Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., later drilled in on the same point: “You’re the architect of the whole program, and you won’t go into it with the rest of the American public.”
Sebelius answered: “I did not say that, sir. I think it’s illegal for me to access the marketplace.”
It is legal under the Affordable Care Act for people to drop an employer-provided health plan, even if it meets the federal definition of “affordable,” and shop in the online marketplace for an individual plan. They might not get a subsidy, and might end up paying more, but they could.
But a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said that Sebelius is enrolled in Medicare, and Medicare beneficiaries are not eligible to use the exchanges.
Some Republicans have called for Sebelius’ resignation. They have argued that the administration had more than three years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the law known as Obamacare, to get the system right.
The administration has faced a torrent of additional questions, including why the site was not tested until two weeks before its launch, and why the launch was not delayed when problems became clear.
The White House on Tuesday reaffirmed a March 31 deadline for people to sign up for health insurance, even if their coverage does not kick in until later.
In light of the website glitches, the administration is being pushed to soften some of the law’s requirements, including what is known as the individual mandate — the requirement almost everyone have health insurance starting next year.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., asked Sebelius whether Obama was ultimately responsible for the failures. She answered that she gave Obama regular reports, and that she herself was responsible for implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Harper asked whether Sebelius was saying that Obama is not responsible for the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Sir, I didn’t say that,” she said.
Harper pressed: “So the president ultimately is responsible. While I think it’s great that you’re a team player and you’re taking responsibility, it is the president’s ultimate responsibility, correct?”
“You clearly, uh — whatever, yes,” the secretary said. “He is the president. He is responsible for government programs.”
Maggie Fox of NBC News contributed to this report.
First Read: Battle over health care reform that started in 2009 is still raging today
First published October 30 2013, 5:23 PM