WASHINGTON (AP) — Prodded to be more candid with Congress, Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday the administration’s HealthCare.gov website needed a couple of hundred fixes when it went online more than a month ago.
“We’re not there yet” in making all needed repairs,” Sebelius conceded.
At the same time, she turned aside any suggestion that the system be taken off line until it could be fixed fully. Doing so “wouldn’t delay people’s cancer or diabetes or Parkinson’s” disease, she told the Senate Finance Committee.
Sebelius also said experts had told HHS that letting consumers continue to use the site can help with finding and fixing problems.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and the panel’s chairman, said Sebelius must be “candidly, fully totally” forthcoming with Congress about the repair effort, “so that we don’t wake up at the end of November and find out we’re not there yet.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the panel’s senior Republican, was harsher.
“While I am glad that you are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with,” he said.
“It is simply inexcusable that the members of this committee were not told earlier that these problems were occurring,” Hatch said.
Sebelius acknowledged that using HealthCare.gov — the troubled Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange plan enrollment system — “has been frustrating for many Americans.”
But she told the Senate Finance Committee that the site’s problems are being steadily fixed and will operate smoothly for most people by the end of this month. And she said the insurance marketplaces that PPACA is setting up are resulting in lower rates, citing figures for some premiums that she said are 16 percent lower than estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and other data from Oregon, New York and elsewhere.
“The fact is that the Affordable Care Act delivered on the product: quality, affordable health insurance,” she said.
To the chagrin of increasingly nervous Democrats, Republicans are also on the attack about the millions of Americans whose health insurers have told them their current policies are being canceled. Obama has said that people who liked their coverage would be able to keep it.
Sebelius testified a week ago to the Republican-run House Energy and Commerce Committee.
At that confrontational session, she apologized for the troubles dogging the website where uninsured Americans and those buying coverage privately are supposed to be able to purchase health insurance. The secretary, who numerous Republicans have said should resign, has promised the site would be fixed by the end of this month and says it is secure.
Insurers are sending cancellation notices to customers whose current policies lack enough coverage to meet the law’s more demanding standards — at least 3.5 million Americans, according to an Associated Press survey of states.
The Obama administration has said people facing cancellations will be able to find better coverage from their current insurance company or on state or federal exchanges where competing policies are being offered.
Lawmakers of both parties have introduced rival bills that would let people retain their existing health insurance policies. But administration officials refused to state their views Tuesday on those proposals.
White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested the White House would resist letting insurance companies continue offering substandard plans, saying that would undermine the law’s fundamental promise of better health care.
“We’re focused on implementing the Affordable Care Act,” Carney said, using the law’s formal name.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., kept his distance from a measure by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who faces re-election next year, that would force insurers to reinstate canceled policies.
“There are hundreds of bills introduced every week, and we have to sort through those that have opportunity to be voted on,” Reid said.
On the defensive about the law, Democrats have started trying to refocus Americans on its benefits.
The law requires most Americans to have health coverage by the start of 2015 or face fines. Middle-class people who don’t get health insurance at work will qualify for federal subsidies for the private coverage they buy. More lower-income people will qualify for Medicaid in states that have agreed to expand that federal-state health care program for the poor.
“The real train wreck is what people are experiencing every day because they can’t afford care,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which he chairs.
At that hearing, Marilyn Tavenner, who runs the agency most directly involved in implementing the health care law, said the website was being improved.
“We obviously underestimated demand,” said Tavenner, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. She added, “We obviously had more bugs than we realized.”
AP Special Correspondent David Espo and AP reporters Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.