As Obamacare Issues Fester, W.H. and Sebelius Play Defense

Thirty days after the botched launch of HealthCare.gov, the nation on Wednesday will hear from both President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the ongoing problems associated with the Affordable Care Act. Both leaders are expected to say they just need more time to make the law work smoothly.

Thirty days after the botched launch of HealthCare.gov, the nation on Wednesday will hear from both President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about the ongoing problems associated with the Affordable Care Act. Both leaders are expected to say they just need more time to make the law work smoothly.



The president on Wednesday will address the issue of health care from Faneuil Hall in Boston, where in 2006 then-Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., signed the Massachusetts health law that served as a model for the Affordable Care Act.


Sebelius, meanwhile, will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.


Their appearances come one day after Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee and gave a formal apology to the American public for the dysfunctional website, which serves as a gateway to the new Obamacare insurance marketplace for consumers in 36 states. Neither Mr. Obama nor Sebelius are expected to be as conciliatory.



The president is speaking from Boston to make certain points. Mr. Obama plans to point out that just like the Affordable Care Act, the Massachusetts law took some time gaining momentum. In the first month of the 2007 open enrollment period in Massachusetts, only 123 people signed up -- more than 20 percent of enrollees waited until the last month.


"Imagine the stories that were probably generated at the time about how the whole thing was going to fail when, in fact, the opposite turned out to be true," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.


Additionally, the president plans to note that the Massachusetts law had bipartisan support, while efforts to improve the Affordable Care Act are undermined by Republican opposition. Lastly, Mr. Obama will make the case that consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act, such as the rule barring insurers from denying insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, are worth fighting for.


The problems plaguing HealthCare.gov have significantly hampered one of the main components of Mr. Obama's signature law. Health policy experts say that if the website isn't fixed by mid-November, it could mean that relatively few people will enroll, leaving the new private insurance marketplace unstable.


The administration has deployed a team of experts, led by former corporate executive Jeff Zients, to conduct a "tech surge" to fix the site. Zients said last week the site should be working sufficiently by the end of November.


In her testimony Wednesday, Sebelius will assure the Energy and Commerce Committee that the website is improving quickly.


"We continue to add more capacity in order to meet demand and execute software fixes to address the sign up and log in issues, stabilizing those parts of the service and allowing us to remove the virtual 'waiting room,'" Sebelius says in her prepared opening statement. "Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done."


However, while Tavenner on Tuesday apologized for the flawed site, Sebelius is blaming the private contractors who built HealthCare.gov for its problems.


"To build the Marketplace, CMS [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] used private sector contractors, just as it does to administer aspects of Medicare," her prepared testimony says. "CMS has a track record of successfully overseeing the many contractors our programs depend on to function. Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations."

In an interview with CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett, White House adviser David Simas on Tuesday said, "It's clear now there wasn't enough testing," but after receiving updates on the site's progress, "it was all systems go on Oct. 1."


Sebelius will face tough questions not only about the website, but other reported Obamacare problems.


For instance, after reaching out to insurance companies across the country, CBS News' Jan Crawford reported Tuesday morning that more than two million people are getting notices in the mail informing them that they can no longer keep their existing plans.


Plans are being canceled if they fail to meet the health care law's 10 minimum standards, including maternity care, emergency visits, mental health treatment and even pediatric dental care. While the administration has boasted about the higher standards in the insurance industry, the impact of the new standards violates one of Mr. Obama's campaign pledges - a pledge that he and the White House had stated repeatedly as recently as last year.


"Here's a guarantee that I've made," the president said at an AARP tele-town hall conference in 2009. "If you have insurance that you like, then you will be able to keep that insurance."


In response to reports that insurers are dropping plans, the administration is blaming the insurers -- not the health care law -- noting that insurance plans that existed before March 2010 were "grandfathered in" and did not have to change to meet the new regulations.


"Those issuers were grandfathered in, in 2010, and [are] choosing to make a different decision now," Tavenner said Tuesday.


Any plans purchased after March 2010, or altered even slightly since then, would have to be dropped if they failed to meet the new standards. People who bought plans after March 2010 represent about half of the individual market; meanwhile, it's unlikely those who bought plans prior to March 2010 have kept their plans completely unchanged.


Nevertheless, Mr. Obama said in 2012, "If you're one of the more than 250 million Americans who already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance."


In Major Garrett's interview with White House adviser David Simas, Simas suggested that relatively few people will see their plans dropped.


"Eighty percent of Americans have their coverage either at work, in Medicaid or in Medicare, and so the Affordable Care Act just enhances their benefit," he said. "Fifteen percent of people are uninsured and they get the new benefits of the Affordable Care Act. What we're talking about, Major, are those five percent of people who are in the individual market."


When Garrett pointed out that that amounts to roughly 14 million Americans, Simas said that those Americans were previously subjected to "the wild west of insurance marketing," without the protections of the Affordable Care Act. "Folks [that] had pre-existing conditions, they could be denied; if you were a woman, you could be charged double," he said.

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