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Affordable Care Act

The first phase of the Affordable Care Act rollout begins October 1 with the launch of the Health Insurance Marketplace.

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By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent

With his presidency at a crossroads, President Barack Obama delivered his health care “fix it” message with a healthy dose of reflection and contrition: “I think I said early on when I was running, I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president.”

At the moment, the challenge is to get back to being a productive president, and those who see a difficult path ahead include veteran Democrats the President counts among his most trusted friends and allies.

Obama“Can Obama come back?” a veteran Democratic strategist asked. “Yes. But like Carter and (George W.) Bush, his downfall is his handling of the job.”

This party sage framed the stakes this way:

“The next few months will tell us whether he will be remembered in the pantheon of successful/consequential presidents in the last 60 years or whether he will be a flawed president whose skills did not match the times.”

After the President’s lengthy appearance in the White House briefing room Thursday, Republicans were scathing in making the case it was too little too late and proof, to them, Obamacare was collapsing.

Predictable, but an argument that has more weight now is that the President, using his terms, “fumbled” the rollout of his signature domestic initiative.

At an Ohio event later Thursday, the President promised to vigorously fight any effort to “gut” the law, and as that debate continues, it is the mood among his fellow Democrats that is most important.

Initial reaction was hardly reassuring to the White House.

Democrats in both the House and Senate mixed praise of the President’s intentions with promises to not trust the administration to fix the problems without guidance from Congress.

This is the new political reality: the President himself acknowledged the rollout was hurting his party’s standing heading into the 2014 midterm election season. While he promised to work hard to turn the political tide, Democrats hoping to be in Washington beyond the end of 2016 — meaning beyond the Obama years — will be less and less reluctant with each passing day to trust their fate to his plans and instincts.

Especially because of those polls the President suggested he doesn’t read.

For Democrats, especially given the timing, the numbers are numbing: Whether you look at the low Obamacare enrollment figures or President Obama’s declining poll standing, what you see is a White House — and a presidency — at a crossroads, facing persistent questions about credibility and competence.

The question now consuming Washington is whether this is just a temporary bad turn or a tipping point.

In a more sympathetic take, a senior veteran of both Obama presidential campaigns and the first White House term put it this way: “I feel for him and my old colleagues. Tough when you’re in the penalty box.”

That view assumes the penalty clock expires, and the President rallies. Republican missteps in the past — like the government shutdown — give many Democrats hope the President’s critics will overreach again and create an opening for a rebound.

Less sympathetic, though, was another seasoned Democrat, this one a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House.

“They don’t have the time, or the self-awareness,” to objectively study and learn from recent mistakes, this longtime Democratic operative said of the President and his second-term team.

“What they do not appreciate is how far away they are from the end of the second term. We had not even had (Monica) Lewinsky yet at this point,” the operative said, referring to Clinton’s White House affair with an intern.

Noting the sagging poll numbers and increasing public complaints from the President’s fellow Democrats, this source, speaking only on condition of anonymity, predicted a rough stretch ahead: “There will be a ton of stories about the need for new and fresh staff and how Obama needs to open his circle up to people who he does not know, or at least not well.”

New polls showing the President at new lows in several categories are only increasing a case of Democratic jitters that began once it was clear the Obamacare rollout was going poorly, and that any political advantage Democrats gained from the government shutdown was fading.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll found just 39% of Americans approve of how the President is handling his job; 54% disapprove. Those numbers are similar to President George W. Bush’s standing at this point in his second term. In an especially troubling turn, that same survey found — even though congressional approval ratings are at an all time low — voters trust Republicans in Congress as much or more than the President on big issues like health care and the economy.

In the past, the President’s strong personal standing with voters has helped him through stretches when voters question his job performance. But there are signs he cannot, at least at this delicate moment, count on that traditional safety net.

The Quinnipiac poll, for example, found for the first time more voters say the Presidency is not trustworthy.

The timing is what makes this rut even more complicated — and potentially consequential — for the President and his second term.

Every day brings the 2014 midterm elections closer, and with the President’s standing low, loyalty within his own party becomes harder to maintain.

Evidence of that is abundant, from the Senate Democrats pushing for Obamacare changes, to meetings between congressional Democrats and White House officials this week that turned testy as lawmakers aired their complains about the Obamacare rollout and how it was hurting the party politically.

In Obama’s 2008 campaign, he ran as much against the struggling Bush administration as he did against the GOP nominee. Back then, questions about the Iraq war and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina had put front and center the questions President Obama now faces — about credibility and competence.

“There is a very tender and important period for the President,” said the veteran Democratic strategist. Instead of a Katrina analogy, this Democrat looked for a parallel within his own party — the Carter presidency.

“Health care could become his energy shortage,” the strategist said.

Health care reform was the signature initiative and achievement of the President’s first term, yet the continuing debate over the program, and the administration’s rollout, is now holding his second term agenda hostage. A look back at the State of the Union address from the beginning of this year is a reminder that the President has realized nothing from his wish list, which included news jobs programs, an increase in the minimum wage and major immigration reforms.

Getting things done in the second year — the midterm election year in which Obamacare is certain to be the central issue — would be difficult even if the President found a path to improve his political standing. Especially if Democrats lose faith in the White House as Republicans did with George W. Bush and his team.

TM & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Some 106,185 people signed up for Obamacare in its first month of operation, a period marred by major technological problems with both the federal and state enrollment websites.

Fewer than 27,000 Americans selected an insurance plan through the federal healthcare.gov site, which is handling enrollment for 36 states, according to figures released Wednesday by the Obama administration. The site is still far from fully operational, leaving tech experts racing to get it working by month’s end, as the administration promised.

Nearly 79,400 people signed up for coverage through state-based exchanges, with California leading the way with nearly 35,400 selecting a plan. States have also been battling system errors, with Oregon having yet to accept online applications.

These figures reflect people who have selected insurance plans through the exchanges, but not necessarily paid for them. Americans have until Dec. 15 to pay if they want coverage to begin on Jan. 1. Open enrollment lasts through March 31.

In addition to the sign-ups, nearly 975,500 people have submitted applications and learned whether they are eligible for subsidies, but have not yet selected a plan.

Separately, another 396,261 Americans have been determined eligible for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The long-awaited initial figures are a far cry from the 7 million people the Congressional Budget Office projected would gain coverage through the exchanges in 2014. The administration has said it expects 800,000 people to pick a plan by the end of November.

The administration has been downplaying enrollment expectations as problems with the exchange sites continued to stymie visitors’ attempts to create accounts and search for insurance plans. President Obama has pointed to the fact that only a hundred people signed up for coverage in Massachusetts in 2006 when health care was overhauled there, but thousands signed up by the end of that year.

“We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months, mirroring the pattern that Massachusetts experienced,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We also expect that the numbers will grow as the website, healthcare.gov, continues to make steady improvements.”
TM & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

By CNN Staff

Congressional Democrats are upping the pressure on President Barack Obama to fix what’s ailing his signature health care initiative with some in the party warning they may be forced to back a House Republican proposal if the White House doesn’t offer an alternative by week’s end.

“We’ve got to get out of the bunker and fix these problems,” a senior congressional Democratic source told CNN’s Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash of flaws in the newly rolled out law that have energized Republican efforts to weaken the President and his allies and derail a policy they have long considered unworkable.

obamapensiveThe White House has until Friday to devise a solution to the problem-plagued roll out of the Affordable Care Act, the source said.

That’s when House Republicans will take up a bill to address one of the more politically potent Obamacare problems for the President and Democrats — those losing their health coverage due to the law despite Obama’s assurances in selling it to the public that Americans could keep their plans if they wanted.

The House bill would allow those insurance plans to extend into next year and gut a major part of the law by allowing anyone to purchase them, even though the existing policies don’t meet the tougher requirements of the Obamacare initiative.

Among other things, the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination for preexisting conditions and mandates coverage for mental health, prenatal care and other issues. This is a primary reason why insurance companies are dropping existing coverage.

“In the absence of a solution that Democrats can support from the White House, you will see more and more Democrats voting for the Upton bill,” the Democratic source said of the plan being advanced this week by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan.

Cancellations drive concern

Although the rocky rollout of the Obamacare website and expected low enrollment figures for the first five weeks of the program are embarrassments for the President and Democrats in Congress who rammed through the health law in 2010 without Republican support, it is the policy cancellations that are really driving Democrats to put more pressure the White House.

Obama has apologized to those losing their coverage despite his assurances to the contrary and appears to be taking a hit for his Obamacare woes, according to the latest polling.

His approval rating among American voters has dropped to its lowest number in Quinnipiac University polling since he became President with new doubts being raised about trust.

Things could get even more heated on Wednesday when White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park will testify before a congressional committee investigating the rocky rollout of the HealthCare.gov website, the Obama administration said.

Park had been subpoenaed to appear by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.

Pressure to come up with a fix

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told reporters that Obama needs to come up with a solution “sooner rather than later.”

While New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, criticized the House GOP plan, saying he believes it would increase premiums and remove consumer protections.

“We should do something so long as it actually fixes the problem and doesn’t make the problem worse.” Israel told reporters Tuesday, saying it would be helpful if the White House came out with a proposal before Friday’s House vote.

He noted a White House official will meet with Democrats on Wednesday and played down the notion they are breaking with the administration on the issue.

But Rep. John Larsen of Connecticut, a loyal liberal and former House Democratic leader, said he hasn’t seen details of the House GOP bill, but said he thought it could “make sense” and that there “could be support” depending on the approach.

Hoyer said earlier he hadn’t ruled out being open to Upton’s bill, but his spokeswoman says he’s now opposed since Upton has said he won’t make changes and Democratic leaders will likely urge their caucus to vote against it.

Boosting pressure further on Obama was former President Bill Clinton, who said on Tuesday that the President should find a way to uphold his initial promises about health policies.

“I personally believe, even if it takes a change in the law, the President should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they’ve got,” Clinton said during an interview with the website OZY.com.

A Senate Democratic approach

A growing number of Democrats have called for changes or delays to the program as many face tough reelection bids in 2014 and are feeling pressure from challengers and constituents.

Although he didn’t go nearly as far as Clinton, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, said he is open to changes as well and noted that Obama should have been more careful with his words in the first place.

“A couple more sentences added would clarify it,” the Senate’s second-highest Democrat said on CNN’s “Newsroom” with Ashleigh Banfield. “The president apologized. He said very clearly he was sorry if he misled people.”

Durbin added that Republicans and Democrats “need to be open to constructive changes to make this law work better.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, introduced a narrower bill than what House Republicans are planning with Upton’s plan and said that she has growing support in the Senate, including Dianne Feinstein, Joe Manchin, Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan — all Democrats.

She noted her proposal would allow people who have individual insurance, which she says makes up about 5% of the market, to keep their coverage. Insurers would have to notify those customers what minimum coverage requirements are not being met.

“First of all, (Obama) apologized. And he’s also apologized for the poor roll out. And again, these things are real problems and they have to be fixed,” Landrieu told CNN’s Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash.

“But the promise of the Affordable Care Act, let me say again, is worth fighting for. And Republicans that continue to think that they’re going to undermine it, repeal it, or defund it are wrong. They’re on the wrong side of history,” she said.

White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Obama agreed with Clinton and is working to address the matter of people losing their coverage. He has already set in motion an aggressive effort to fix the website problems.

Carney rejected the Upton bill as “not an effective fix” because it opens up the plans to anyone, not just the people who’s plans are being canceled.

“The President has instructed his team to look at a range of options” to find solutions for people who have lost their plans, Carney said.

Enrollment woes

Democratic anger over the cancellation of insurance policies come as people wait for the release of enrollment numbers.

The Obama administration is expected to release them by the end of this week but has yet to say exactly when.

White House officials are is lowering expectations, cautioning the numbers “will be lower than we hoped and we anticipated,” Carney said.

It is blaming a faulty federally run website that is hindering the ability of consumers to sign up for coverage.

“We are working 24-7 to ensure that the site is working smoothly for the vast majority of users by the end of November,” said Chris Jennings, deputy assistant to the President for health policy.

Consumers have until December 15 to submit payment for coverage that begins January 1. The overall sign-up deadline for 2014 is next March 31.

CNN’s Dana Bash, Ashley Killough, Brianna Keilar, Deirdre Wals, Jim Acosta, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Adam Aigner-Treworgy, and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.

TM & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

 

By David Simpson, CNN

President Barack Obama’s apology to Americans whose health insurance plans are being canceled because of the Affordable Care Act opens the door to the question of how the problem will be fixed — even as his administration tries to overcome the dysfunctional rollout of the website where people are supposed to be able to choose new coverage.

obamaobamacareapologyAs the president’s apology was being aired in an exclusive interview with NBC News on Tuesday, talk was in the air of new legislation in Congress and unspecified steps the president might take on his own.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’ office promised “an important announcement related to the Affordable Care Act” during a visit to Atlanta on Friday.

Here’s what you need to know to get up to speed:

The problem

Insurers are sending cancellation notices to some of the 12 million Americans whose individual policies don’t meet Obamacare requirements for more comprehensive care.

The law does not require cancellation of policies that were issued before the new law passed Congress in 2010. But people whose policies have changed since then must get polices that conform to the new requirements. In 2010, the Health and Human Services Department estimated that 40% to 67% of individual plans would eventually lose their “grandfathered” status.

Some insurance companies also appear to be canceling policies for other reasons, such as withdrawing from states where they have fewer subscribers.

The president contends many of the people who have received cancellation notices actually will wind up with better coverage at lower cost. But he acknowledged that’s a hard sell when people are still having trouble logging onto the Obamacare website to enroll.

The apology

“Even though it’s a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged, you know, it means a lot to them,” Obama told NBC. “And it’s scary to them. And I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me. We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and that we’re going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this. … Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law. And, you know, that’s something that I regret. That’s something that we’re going to do everything we can to get fixed.”

The change

The president’s previous comments on whether people could keep their insurance plans under Obamacare:

Before passage in 2012: “If you like your plan, keep your plan.”

Last week: “If you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law, and you really like that plan, you are able to keep it.”

Monday: “If you have or had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law, and you really like that plan, what we said was you could keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.”

The solution

Senior administration officials told CNN the president is seeking administrative solutions that can be implemented without approval of House Republicans who are steadfastly opposed to the entire law.

Some experts suggest one possible approach would be to ask insurers to delay the cancellation of plans and extend them into 2014 so that people are not left without insurance. That has been done in California.

House Speaker John Boehner said “the House will vote next week to allow anyone with a health care plan they like to keep it. If the President is sincerely sorry that he misled the American people, the very least he can do is support this bipartisan effort. Otherwise, this apology doesn’t amount to anything.”

And Senators Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, introduced legislation to delay by a year the tax penalty for people who choose to go without insurance and are not covered by Medicaid or other government insurance program.

The penalty in 2014 for an individual is scheduled to be $95 or 1 percent of income above $10,000, whichever is greater. Penalties for families without coverage can reach $285 or 1 percent of income above $20,000, whichever is greater. Penalties will increase sharply in 2015 and 2016 under current law.

The Manchin-Kirk bill would prevent any penalty before Jan. 1, 2015.

The website

In the NBC interview, Obama reiterated the administration’s line that he’s “confident” a “majority of people” will be able to use the website and apply for insurance by November 30.

But he added, “Given that I’ve been burned already with a website — well, more importantly, the American people have been burned by a website — that has been dysfunctional, what we’ve also been doing is creating a whole other set of tracks. Making sure that people can apply by phone effectively. Making sure that people can apply in person effectively. So what I’m confident about is that anybody who wants to buy health insurance through the marketplace, they are going to be able to buy it.”

He did not say whether he would push back the March 31 deadline to enroll or the penalty for those who do not purchase insurance.

CNN’s Ashley Killough, Brianna Keilar, Gloria Borger and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

 TM & © 2013 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Michael Mahoney, Senior Vice President of Consumer Marketing at Go Health Insurance visited the WGN Evening news to talk about the Affordable Health Care rollout.

First it was the government shutdown, and now the government’s health care website is being shutdown daily. Going offline may give teams time to fix the glitches plaguing the troubled website.

This is actually planned, unlike the other shutdowns and glitches that have plagued the website since it went live on October 1st.
When you log onto http://www.Healthcare.gov  a message appears telling you, the health insurance marketplace online application isn`t available from approximately 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

That will be the case every day until the website is fixed.  The site also warns it may be down at other times too, while improvements are made.

There is growing criticism of the Obama administration over its implementation of the President’s signature health care law.

The L.A. times reports, The president was told the web-site would be ready for its October first debut, even though private contractors and some administration officials knew the site failed in early testing.

Last week President Obama compared the problematic rollout of Obamacare to ‘Romneycare’: the 2006 massachusetts health program signed into law by then-Governor Mitt Romney.  Yesterday Romney took issue with that on NBC’s Meet the Press, saying the difference between the two is the President made false promises with the Affordable Health Care Act.

“And perhaps the most important lesson the president, i think, failed to learn was, you have to tell the American people the truth. And when he told the American people that you could keep your health insurance if you wanted to keep that plan, period, he said that time and again, he wasn’t telling the truth. And i think that fundamental dishonesty has really put in peril the whole foundation of his second term.”

The Obama Administration has hired tech gurus from Google and Oracle to fix the problems plaguing the site. They are aiming have healthcare.gov running, bug free, by the end of this month.

People can still find coverage by calling the 24-hour call center at 1-800-318-2596.

By Tom Cohen and Holly Yan, CNN

If only this was just a Halloween trick.

Visitors trying to log on to the Obamacare website Thursday morning saw the same stubborn phrase that has roiled users for weeks: “The system is down at the moment.”

It’s been almost a full month since the HealthCare.gov website launched, riddled with technical problems despite a series of advance warning signs. And even after a chorus of apologies out of Washington, it may be another month before everything’s running smoothly.

Vice President Joe Biden became the highest-ranking administration official to apologize Wednesday for the botched rollout.

“We assumed that it was up and ready to run,” he told CNN’s sister network HLN. “But the good news is although it’s not — and we apologize for that — we are confident by the end of November it will be, and there’ll still be plenty of time for people to register and get online.”

That mea culpa came after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the “miserably frustrating” problems during a 3 1/2-hour congressional grilling. She said she made a mistake when she told President Barack Obama that HealthCare.gov was “ready to go” for its October 1 launch.

Sebelius promised a “vast majority” of consumers will have an easier time shopping online for health insurance under Obamacare by the end of November.

“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.

She echoed the overall administration stance — that a team of experts is scrambling to fix the website’s errors.

To the frustrated users who have had problems, she said: “You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing these problems.”

Obama tried to log on

Biden said he didn’t even bother logging on to the Obamacare site.

“Actually, the President tried to get online, and my daughter tried to get online,” he said. “I did not, because it was clear that I was not getting online.”

Obama himself acknowledged that 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.”

Glass half full?

Sebelius said the sweeping health care program has delivered on its 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.

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 … those folks should have to explain themselves,” he said.

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.

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.

Early warning signs

Some of the criticism surrounding 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 a month before the launch that the Obamacare 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 who built the website never recommended delaying this month’s launch. But she conceded that “we did not adequately do end-to-end testing.”

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. But Sebelius said the agency will not pay for incomplete work.

Security questions

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 said he knows there have been no such comprehensive security tests.

An internal government memo obtained by CNN on Wednesday that was written days before the website launched 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.”

Sebelius told CNN last week that Obama didn’t know of the problems with the site — even though insurance companies had complained and the site crashed during a pre-launch test run — until after it went live.

A senior administration official said Obama now gets a “nightly readout” with the latest Obamacare statistics and an update of the website’s status.

CNN’s Brianna Keilar, Joe Johns, Gloria Borger, Kevin Bohn, Lisa Desjardins and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.

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.

sebeliusobamacare“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.

Sufficient preparation?

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.

Security questions

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.
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Healthcare expert and Northwestern University business professor Craig Garthwaite discusses the Obamacare Website problems.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the performance of HealthCare.gov.

She’s testifying Wednesday morning before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

sebeliusobamacare

Sebelius called the website that manages the health insurance exchange under the President’s Affordable Care act, a “miserably frustrating experience.”

She also asked the American people to “hold me responsible.”

The site has had several connection problems and shut downs since it launched October 1.

Sebelius says a plan is in place to tackle some of the technical issues that have been going on.

She says a “vast majority” of consumers will be able to buy health insurance by the end of November without the problems being experienced now.

Some committee members told stories of their constituents who found out that they have to purchase a new policy, with higher premiums, because it doesn’t fit the standards set in the law.

When asked if President Obama kept his promise when he said that anyone who likes their plan can keep it, Sebelius responded, “Yes, he is.”

When asked how much the website has cost, she said $174 million, including $56 million for technological support.

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