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The Obama administration official responsible for the implementation of key parts of the federal health care law apologized Wednesday for the disastrous rollout of the health insurance marketplace built by the government but vowed the problems would be fixed by the end of November.
In sworn testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius conceded that access to the federal website to buy insurance under the law "has been a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans."
"You deserve better. I apologize,” Sebelius said. “I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems."
Since its launch on Oct. 1, the government website has been set back with functional and accessibility problems that have prevented people seeking insurance from purchasing plans. Under the health care law passed in 2010, all Americans must be able to prove that they have insurance by March 31, 2014, and Sebelius told lawmakers that enough time will be granted to fulfill the obligation.
She conceded that before launching the site, her agency underestimated the depth of the problems with the site.
"No one indicated it could possibly go this wrong," she said, but added that private contractors who helped build the site did cite "risks" in undertaking such a massive project online.
Republicans and Democrats on the committee spent Wednesday morning grilling Sebelius during her first official testimony since the website’s launch. She spent much of her time defending the administration from questions about why thousands of private insurance plans would be canceled as a result of the law.
Republicans have seized on repeated promises from President Barack Obama that consumers could keep their health care plans, which has turned out not to be true since many plans do not meet new insurance requirements under the law, which set minimum mandates on coverage.
“They will be offered new plans,” Sebelius said when asked by Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn what she would say to Americans who received notices that their current coverage does not meet new requirements and will be terminated. “Insurance companies cancel individual policies year in and year out. They are a one-year contract with individuals. They are not lifetime plans.”
“I will remind you,” Blackburn replied, “some people like to drive a Ford not a Ferrari. Some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem. You’re taking away their choice.”
In her testimony, Sebeilus acknowledged that her agency did not provide enough time for final testing of the site. Last week, private contractors from companies who worked with HHS to build HealthCare.gov said they were given only two weeks for end-to-end testing.
“We did not adequately do end-to-end testing,” Sebelius said. “I don’t think anyone estimated the degree of problems.”