WASHINGTON D.C. (NBC) - The cabinet secretary responsible for Obamacare apologized Wednesday to Americans frustrated by the glitch-prone website that has blocked them from comparing and enrolling in health insurance plans.
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, called it “a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans.”
“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of healthcare.gov,” she told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize.”
Just Tuesday, the site crashed for the second time in a week when a data center owned by Verizon went down.
The Obama administration has pledged to fix the site by Nov. 30. Sebelius told the committee that the administration is committed to solving the problem.
Critics of Obamacare have also seized on complaints from Americans whose health insurance plans have been canceled because they do not meet coverage standards set by the new law.
Those critics say that the cancellations contradict repeated assurances from President Barack Obama that Americans who liked their health plans would be allowed to keep them.
“Some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told Sebelius at the House hearing Wednesday. “You’re taking away their choice.”
The White House has said that the cancellations apply only to the 5 percent of Americans who buy insurance on the individual market, not the 80 percent who are covered by their employers.
The administration has also argued that the individual market has been “like the Wild West” — poorly regulated and leaving people subject to the whims of insurance companies, which before Obamacare could easily deny coverage and hike premiums.
“They can get health insurance,” Sebelius said, answering Blackburn. “They must be offered new plans, new options” — either through the federal marketplace or outside it.
Pressed by the congresswoman on who was responsible for the failures, Sebelius said: “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”
Some Republicans have called for Sebelius’ resignation. They have argued that the administration had more than three years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the law known as Obamacare, to get the system right.
Marilyn Tavenner, the government official whose department oversaw the creation of the site, told Congress on Tuesday that 700,000 people had submitted applications through the federal and state health insurance marketplaces.
But she would not say how many people had enrolled for coverage. She said that the number would not be available until mid-November, and that “we expect the initial number to be small.”
The administration has faced a torrent of additional questions, including why the site was not tested until two weeks before its launch, and why the launch was not delayed when problems became clear.
The White House on Tuesday reaffirmed a March 31 deadline for people to sign up for health insurance, even if their coverage does not kick in until later.
In light of the website glitches, the administration is being pushed to soften some of the law’s requirements, including what is known as the individual mandate — the requirement almost everyone have health insurance starting next year.
By Erin McClam, Staff Writer, NBC News