President Obama's top health official said Wednesday that early Obamacare enrollment numbers will be "very low" but rejected any talk of delaying the reforms, even as Senate Democrats pressured the White House to correct the law's failures.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made her second apology on Capitol Hill in the span of one week for the persistent glitches that have made it difficult for people from 36 states to enroll for coverage on HealthCare.gov.
"It's unacceptable. I am focused on fixing it, and I'm accountable," Mrs. Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee.
But putting off the Affordable Care Act, she said, "wouldn't delay people's cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's" disease.
"People's lives depend on this," she told lawmakers on the Democrat-led panel.
Lawmakers from both parties are decrying the flawed rollout of Mr. Obama's signature law. Democrats are upset that the administration did not successfully execute the reforms they've cheered for three years, and Republicans say their warnings about the contentious law, which passed without a single Republican vote, have proven prophetic.
With midterm elections looming, Democrats took their concerns directly to Mr. Obama during a visit to the White House.
"It's absolutely unacceptable in this day and age that the administration can't deliver on the promises it made to all Americans because of technical problems with a website," Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat who faces a tough re-election fight next year, said after the meeting.
Mr. Obama then took off for Texas, a conservative state that has rejected all facets of Obamacare, in an attempt to sway public opinion in favor of the law.
Even before Mr. Obama touched down in Dallas, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said Obamacare "has no place in Texas" and the president should "take his broken-promises tour elsewhere."
On Capitol Hill, Democrats wavered between cheering on a law that has succeeded in some states that decided to run their own exchanges and demanding results from a technical team that is scrambling to fix the federal website that serves about two-thirds of the states.
"As someone who has fought and bled for this and who sincerely thinks that it's going to work in the long run, I want you to hold them to account, I want you to burn their fingers and make them pay for not ... producing a product that all of us could be proud of," Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, told Mrs. Sebelius.
Republican lawmakers said they are disgusted by the Obama administration's pre-October claims that the website would work and the president's repeated and emphatic promises that Americans would be able to keep their health plans under the new law if they chose.
Millions of Americans have received cancellation notices because their health plans do not meet the coverage standards set by Obamacare, a trend that has prompted the White House to walk back Mr. Obama's repeated promise.
Ten Republican state attorneys general sent a letter to Mrs. Sebelius that says the delays and other problems may "result in significant harm to consumers."
"If these concerns are not addressed, consumers may pay a tax for failing to buy insurance primarily through a website that will not permit them to do so," wrote the attorneys general, led by West Virginia's Patrick Morrisey.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, told Mrs. Sebelius he feared that "navigators" — in-person assisters charged with helping people enroll through Obamacare — are not being fully vetted.
"So a convicted felon could be a navigator and could acquire sensitive personal information from an individual, unbeknownst to them," he said at the hearing.
"That is possible," Mrs. Sebelius said. "We have contracts with the organizations, and they have taken the responsibility to screen their individual navigators and make sure that they are sufficiently trained for the job."
Mrs. Sebelius should appear before the committee each month, for six months, while a tech team tries to repair the website, said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the finance panel's ranking Republican.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said HealthCare.gov was performing slowly Wednesday but had not suffered outages.
Officials also confirmed that CMS chief information officer Tony Trenkle, who had oversight of HealthCare.gov, will leave the agency this month.
Spokeswoman Julie Bataille told reporters on a daily conference call that he was not forced out because of the website's problems.
"Tony made the decision that he was going to move to the private sector," she said.
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