Obama official apologizes for problem-plagued health care website
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the difficulties plaguing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. President Barack Obama's top health official faced tough questioning by a congressional committee Wednesday that will demand she explain how the administration stumbled so badly in its crippled online launch of the president's health care overhaul. (AP Photo/ J. Scott Applewhite)
Steven R. Hurst, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, October 30, 2013 9:41AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, October 30, 2013 5:55PM EDT
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's top health official apologized Wednesday for wasting consumers' time as they tried to use the crippled website that allows them to buy government-mandated health insurance under the overhaul known as Obamacare.
Obama later in the day defended the value of the signature legislation of his presidency, telling an audience in Boston, "We are going to see this through." He said he takes "full responsibility" for resolving the computer problems as soon as possible.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a congressional committee that the website access problems were "miserably frustrating" and that she takes the blame for fixing the system by the end of November. She said the website was improving daily, but as the hearing got underway, consumers trying to log in from Virginia got this message: "The system is down at the moment."
Republicans have argued the troubled website' glitches are proof the government is incapable of managing the complex health care program.
Obama's White House legacy depends heavily on whether his massive overhaul of the U.S. health care system will succeed, and so far it's been an embarrassment. The United States had been the largest developed nation without a national health care system.
Sebelius testified as another controversy brewed over a wave of cancellation notices hitting small businesses and individuals who buy their own insurance. Republicans say that contradicts one of Obama's earliest promises about the health law: You can keep your plan if you like it. Obama's promise dates back to June 2009, when Congress was starting to grapple with how to cover millions of uninsured Americans.
The cancellations affect some of the 5 per cent of Americans who buy health insurance on the private market. The rest have coverage through their employers or through the Medicare and Medicaid programs for the elderly and poor. The cancellations affect policyholders whose coverage now falls short of new standards in the health care law.
"If you're getting one of these letters, just shop around in the new market place," Obama said. "That's what it's for."
He pointed to benefits already available under the health care law, including ending discrimination against children with pre-existing conditions or people with mental health issues.
He spoke in Massachusetts, where the state's health care coverage provided the model for the federal overhaul. Republican Mitt Romney, who lost to Obama in the 2012 election, was Massachusetts governor and signed the state's health care bill into law.
But in a statement Wednesday, Romney said he believes "a plan crafted to fit the unique circumstances of a single state should not be grafted onto the entire country."
The Obama administration also faced new questions about security of the health care website.
An internal government memo obtained by The Associated Press shows administration officials were concerned that a lack of testing posed a high security risk for the website.
The Sept. 27 memo to Medicare and Medicaid chief Marylin Tavenner said a contractor was not able to test all the security controls in one complete version of the system. Insufficient testing "exposed a level of uncertainty that can be deemed as a high risk," the memo said.
"Amazon would never do this ... This is completely an unacceptable level of security," Republican Rep. Mike Rogers told Sebelius during questioning.
Sebelius countered that the system is secure. Added spokeswoman Joanne Peters: "When consumers fill out their online...applications, they can trust that the information they're providing is protected by stringent security standards and that the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure."
A growing number of Republicans in Congress are calling for Obama to fire Sebelius.
The federal law doesn't create a government-run system like Britain's, but it does mandate that large employers provide insurance and that everyone must be insured or face tax penalties. Those who can't afford insurance can receive subsidies in states that accepted federal money for an expansion of the Medicaid program for low-income Americans.
Several Republican-governed states rejected the federal money and are not expanding Medicaid.