Updated at 9:33, 9:46 and 9:55 am EDT
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services in the four-and-a-half years since President Barack Obama pursued the passage of a health-care program offering insurance to millions lacking coverage, today apologized to the American public for the faltering website, HealthCare.Gov, now offering that insurance.
The agency has “a lot of work to do,” Sebelius said with her apology before the first House committee to hear from her since the website was launched on Oct. 1.
“Hold me responsible for the debacle,” Sebelius said, deflecting attempts by a Republican committee member to name the contractor responsible for the website’s problems.
Yet it was more than questions about the website that the secretary was facing today as the House Energy and Commerce Committee swore in Obama’s Cabinet member for testimony.
“There are a lot of us on this panel today hearing from angry and confused constituents,” committee chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said at the outset. “When was the president significantly informed?” Upton asked, that many people would not be able to keep their existing insurance policies because of Obamacare’s requirement for improved coverage in all policies. “Why was that change made and did the president know it?”
“There was no change,” Sebelius said.
The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care act “grandfathered in” policies for people who had coverage before it took effect, she said. It is policies opened since then, she said, that have to meet the new law’s basic requirements. People purchasing new policies also will have greater protection, she said. “If a plan is in place and was in place at the time the president signed the bill” and want to keep it, she said, the policyholder can keep it.
“All we’ve been hearing about is the website — but that’s not the only complaint we’ve been hearing about,” said ranking Democrat Henry Waxman, coming to the defense of the HHS secretary. “In fact, everybody in this country is going to have access to health insurance.”
“The bottom line is that people with good coverage… will be able to keep it,” Waxman said. “That’s a good result. I’m pleased with it, and I think most people will.”
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, asked if the president is “keeping his promise” that people will be able to keep their policies.
“Yes, he is,” Sebelius said.
“In all deference to the press corps… it’s important to be accurate about what’s going on,” Sebelius said. People with more recent policies will be offered new coverage. “Insurance companies cancel insurance policies year in and year out… They are not lifetime policies.”
“Some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red cup, not crystal,” Blackburn said. “You are taking their choice away.”
Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, framed the debate as a metaphor from “The Wizard of Oz” for Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Barton said, likening the “parallel universe” in which Democrats are defending Obamacare and Republicans are fighting it to the old movie.
“We’re not in Kansas,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey. “We’re in Oz.”
Sebelius was asked today if she has confidence in the promise made since the White House put a tech-entrepreneur, Jeffrey Zients, in charge of the repair that the website will be fixed by Nov. 30.
“I do,” she said.