Henry Waxman:Washington (United States) (AFP) – President Barack Obama’s health secretary publicly apologized Wednesday for the rocky rollout of the U.S. health care law’s new website, stressing that citizens “deserve better” from the system.
But while Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius regretted that navigating HealthCare.gov has been a “miserably frustrating experience” for many, she insisted that so-called “Obamacare” has been working well for millions of Americans.
For his part, Obama was to travel to Massachusetts later in the day to defend his signature reforms in the state where his former Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney adopted a similar system in 2006.
“Today, 97 percent of Massachusetts residents have health insurance coverage and the primary attacks against this law -– many of which we are hearing again today about the ACA –- never proved true,” a White House official said.
The pointwoman for the new health care law, however, sounded chastened about the trouble-plagued online portal through which millions are expected to register for health insurance.
“Let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems,” Sebelius, the seniormost administration official to testify before Congress on the health care law, told a closely-watched House panel.
And when Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn grilled her and suggested the secretary was seeking to pawn off responsibility on contractors like Verizon, where a breakdown took the site offline last weekend, Sebelius interrupted to say she herself would take the heat.
“Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible,” she said.
HealthCare.gov, which allows access to exchange marketplaces where Americans can purchase private insurance, debuted on October 1.
Committee chairman Fred Upton said he has seen little improvement in the website’s performance since then, noting that his staff was “hit with an error message” even as they tried to use the page early Wednesday.
“Sadly here we are now five weeks into enrollment and the news seems to get worse by the day,” Upton said.
“After more than three years to prepare, malfunctions have become the norm.”
Sebelius’s appearance marked the third congressional hearing in a week addressing the faulty start to Obamacare.
Critics like Blackburn have focused on how the health care law is booting millions of people off their plans, years after Obama told Americans that if they liked their health plan, they could keep it.
Sebelius countered that insurance companies routinely alter coverage in the individual market, and that people on these plans often hold them for less than a year.
And skeleton policies that do not measure up to Obamacare’s rules, including not providing free mammograms or charging women 50 percent more than men, will need to be changed to conform to the law.
“If someone is buying a brand new policy… they will have consumer protections for the first time,” Sebelius said.
With Republicans seizing on the policy cancellations letters, Sebelius pushed back, saying it was insurance companies altering their inadequate plans in order to conform with Obamacare.
“This market has always been the Wild West,” she said of the individual marketplace.
Republican Joe Barton, a fervent opponent of the health care law, took a swipe at Sebelius, a former Kansas governor, by suggesting she might be in over her head.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Barton told her.
“Some might say we are actually in ‘Wizard of Oz’ land given the parallel universes we appear to be habitating.”
But Democrats like Henry Waxman rode to Sebelius’s rescue.
“I would urge my colleagues to stop hyperventilating,” he said.
“The early glitches in this rollout will soon be forgotten… and then every American will finally have access to affordable health insurance.”
Last week the lead contractors, which collectively have been paid hundreds of millions of dollars to create and manage the website, said there was insufficient testing of the online portal.
Asked directly if the two weeks of end-to-end testing was enough, Sebelius replied “clearly not.”
“We did not adequately do end-to-end testing,” she added. “The products were not locked and loaded into the system until the third week of September.”
As critics pounced on the website’s shortcomings, Democrat Eliot Engel noted the irony of Republicans who abhor the premise of Obamacare yet were making a “big show” about how many Americans can not get access to the health care options fast enough.
“You’re really on the wrong side of history here,” Engel told his Republican colleagues.
AFP Photo/Karen Bleier