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Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - 8:09pm
WASHINGTON, D.C. — She apologized for the "miserably frustrating" problems with the Obamacare website and promised it would get fixed.
But no matter what Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a House committee Wednesday, her words were no match for the screen showing that HealthCare.gov was telling its users: "The system is down at the moment."
That same message still popped up late into Wednesday for those trying to log-in to the website. By then, Sebelius could at least take solace that her 3½-hour grilling before the House Energy and Commerce Committee was finally over-- a hearing that shined a spotlight on the 2010 Affordable Care Act and the partisan lightning rod it has become.
The former Kansas governor promised a "vast majority" of consumers will be able to shop online for health insurance under what's known as Obamacare by the end of November without the issues currently being reported, such as Wednesday's inaccessibility.
"In these early weeks, access to HealthCare.gov has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans, including many who have waited years, in some cases their entire lives, for the security of health insurance," Sebelius said, adding she was "as frustrated and angry as anyone" with the website's flawed launch.
Speaking directly to Americans confronting the problems, Sebelius said: "You deserve better. I apologize. I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems."
Vice President Joe Biden told CNN's sister network HLN that experts told him and Obama that the website was "up and ready to run," likewise apologizing for the fact it was not -- something he called inexcusable.
Sebelius shouldered the blame for that impression, saying she made a mistake when she told Obama that HealthCare.gov was "ready to go" for its October 1 launch.
"Clearly, I was wrong. We were wrong," she said. "We knew that in any big, new, complicated system there would be problems. No one ever imagined the volume of issues and problems that we have had and we must fix it."
Speaking in Boston later in the day, Obama acknowledged that the website was too slow and too many people "have gotten stuck, and I am not happy about it."
"There's no excuse for it," the President said. "And I take full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP."
Obama stands by Sebelius
Earlier Wednesday, Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan opened the House committee hearing by saying news about Obamacare "seems to get worse by the day."
"Americans are scared," he said.
Yet Sebelius said the sweeping health care program has delivered on its central promise to provide affordable health care coverage. Thousands have been able to access the website to look at new health coverage options that will give them security of knowing they won't go bankrupt if they get sick, she said.
She echoed the overall administration stance -- that a team of experts is scrambling to fix the website's errors.
Republicans have called for Sebelius to be fired for the Obamacare problems, but a White House spokesman said Wednesday that Obama has "complete confidence" in her.
"She took responsibility for many of the problems that are evident with the (Obamacare) website, but she also deserves credit for the other aspects of the Affordable Care Act implementation that have gone well," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
In fact, Obama tried to turn the tables on Republican opponents of his signature health care reforms, challenging them to come up with helpful ideas instead of undermining the federal law.
"Anyone defending the remnants of the old, broken system -- as if it was working for people -- anybody who thinks we shouldn't finish the job of making the health care system work for everybody," the President said, "... those folks should have to explain themselves."
Debate swirls over people losing coverage
During Wednesday's hearing, Republicans were demanding explanations rather than offering fixes, claiming the website's problems foreshadow deeper issues with Obamacare.
GOP legislators repeatedly cited letters from insurance companies informing some people with individual policies that their plans were being changed or discontinued as proof that Obama misled the public when he repeatedly promised Americans could keep coverage they liked under the reforms.
"We also are most concerned about the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of folks who in fact have gotten a cancellation from their individual insurance plan," Upton said after the hearing.
Asked about the canceled or altered policies, Sebelius said Obama was accurate because people who bought their own health coverage before Obamacare was signed into law in 2010 can keep those policies if they choose under a "grandfather" clause included in the legislation.
Therefore, those who like their health care plan can keep it, she said, relying on the technicality that the coverage must predate the law.
Obama said at the Boston rally that people who have their policies discontinued should "just shop around in the new marketplace" for better plans. Calling many individual policies from before the health care reforms "substandard," he said that if "you really like that plan, you are able to keep it."
"That was part of the promise we made," the President said. "But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to downgrade or cancel these substandard plans, what we said under that law is you have to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage."
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation website, 15.4 million people had individual health care coverage in 2011, representing about 5% of the population. The vast majority of Americans have coverage through their employer, Medicare, Medicaid or other public providers and will not be affected by changes involving individual coverage.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that "a significant portion" of the 5% of people with individual coverage will end up paying less for better policies when they shop around in the new exchanges.
Some of the criticism of the website's launch has to do with what Obama and other officials knew and when they knew it.
CNN has learned the administration received stark warnings just one month before the launch that the federal health care site was not ready to go live, according to a confidential report.
The caution, from the main contractor CGI Federal, warned of risks and issues for HealthCare.gov, even as company executives were testifying publicly the project was on track.
Sebelius told the House committee the outside contractors that built the website never recommended delaying this month's launch.
She admitted that "we did not adequately do end-to-end testing" and that various components "were not locked and loaded into the system" until mid-September.
The contracts with the private companies working on the Obamacare website -- which amount to $174 million so far, with more bills due well into 2014 -- do not have "built-in penalties" allowing her department to charge them for disappointing or faulty work, Sebelius said. However, she said the agency will not pay for incomplete work.
Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, accused Sebelius of putting the private information of Americans at risk by failing to properly test security measures on the website.
"This is a completely unacceptable level of security," he said. "You know it's not secure."
Sebelius responded that testing occurs regularly, and she told Rogers she would get back to him on whether any end-to-end security test of the entire system has ever occurred. Rogers responded that he knows there have been no such comprehensive security tests.
An internal government memo, obtained by CNN on Wednesday and written days before the website opened, warned of a "high" security risk because of a lack of testing.
"Due to system readiness issues, the (security control assessment) was only partly completed," said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services memo. "This constitutes a risk that must be accepted and mitigated to support the Marketplace Day 1 operations."
At Wednesday's hearing, Sebelius said an independent security non-profit, Mitre Corporation, assessed the HealthCare.org system and "did not raise flags about going ahead." A mitigation plan was being implemented, Sebelius added.
In an exclusive interview with CNN last week, Sebelius said Obama didn't know of the problems with the Affordable Care Act's website -- even though insurance companies had complained and the site crashed during a pre-launch test run -- until after its launch.
A senior administration official told CNN that, nowadays, Obama gets a "nightly readout" on the available statistics related to the Affordable Care Act and work to improve the HealthCare.gov website. According to the official, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough talks to the President about the issue multiple times a day.
CNN's Joe Johns, Gloria Borger, Kevin Bohn, Mariano Castillo, Lisa Desjardins and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.
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