President Obama’s top health care official apologized Wednesday for the broken Obamacare website and said it would take another month to fix — but even as she defended the law as a good deal for most Americans, she said there was no reason for her to have to purchase coverage from the exchanges.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also was on the defensive over Mr. Obama’s 2010 vow that his health care program wouldn’t force Americans out of their existing insurance.
Mr. Obama waded into that fight late in the day, using a campaign-style speech in Boston to parse his promise, saying that while some may be kicked off their plans, they will end up getting better deals from their insurance companies.
“One of the things health reform was designed to do was to help not only the uninsured but also the underinsured,” Mr. Obama said. “Before the Affordable Care Act, the worst of these [health care] plans routinely dropped thousands of Americans every single year. This wasn’t just bad for the folks who had these policies, it was bad for all of us because when tragedy strikes and folks can’t pay their medical bills, everybody else picks up the tab.”
Both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Sebelius said they take ultimate blame for the early problems with the HealthCare.gov website, which was supposed to be the main way for many Americans to buy insurance from state-based health car exchanges. The site went live Oct. 1 but has been plagued by glitches. It crashed even as Mrs. Sebelius was testifying to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday morning.
“Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible,” Mrs. Sebelius told angry Republicans during her appearance, which marked the first time she has answered to Congress for the website’s problems.
Calls for Mrs. Sebelius to resign took a back seat to complaints about who knew what — and when — about the flawed website and stories of constituents who have lost their health care plans and could face higher premiums.
Lawmakers also relied on backhanded humor and personal challenges to make their points.
Rep. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, wanted to know if Mrs. Sebelius would enroll herself in a health care plan on one of the Obamacare exchanges.
She refused because she has employer-based coverage from the federal government.
“I would gladly join the exchange if I didn’t have affordable coverage in my workplace,” she testified.
But Mrs. Sebelius appeared to confuse the law when she told lawmakers, “If I have available employer-based coverage, I am not eligible for the market.”
HealthCare.gov tells users that if they are eligible for job-based insurance, they “can consider switching to a marketplace plan” but may put their subsidies at risk.
The site says “you won’t qualify for lower costs based on your income unless the job-based insurance is unaffordable or doesn’t meet minimum requirements. You also may lose any contribution your employer makes to your premiums.”
Mrs. Sebelius gave her testimony a day after one of her agency chiefs, Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testified to another House committee.
Both women laid some of the blame for the website’s problems on the lead company they hired to help build the site.
But the vendors have said the Obama administration did not test the system “end to end” until days before its launch, and a CMS memo said the website hadn’t completed security testing as of Sept. 27.
“From a security perspective, the aspects of the system that were not tested due to the ongoing development, exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed as a high risk for the [Federally Facilitated Marketplace],” the memo said.
Making matters worse for the administration, website problems have been eclipsed this week by concerns that many Americans in the individual market will not be able to keep their health care plans, as Mr. Obama had promised.
Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, said Mr. Obama’s vow has been cast into doubt by a flood of cancellation notices nationwide.
Mrs. Sebelius told lawmakers that if a plan was in place in 2010, when Congress passed the legislation, then it could have been grandfathered in as long as the companies didn’t make major changes.
“Insurance companies cancel individual policies year in and year out,” she said. “They’re a one-year contract with individuals. They are not lifetime plans.”
She reminded lawmakers that the individual market covers a small percentage of Americans — many are covered by their employers or by programs such as Medicare — and that some consumers will gain better health plans at similar or lower costs, especially with the help of government subsidies.
Mr. Upton said Americans are “scared” and “frustrated” with the situation because many of these people cannot use the Obamacare websites to explore their options — just weeks after Mrs. Sebelius and her lieutenants assured lawmakers that the federal exchange system was ready to launch.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, told Mrs. Sebelius that the law is taking away a personal choice to hold a bare-bones plan.
“I will remind you,” she said, “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.”