Evan Vucci, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Prodded to be more candid with Congress, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday the administration's health care website needed a couple of hundred fixes when it went online more than a month ago and conceded, "we're not there yet" in making all needed repairs.
At the same time, she turned aside any suggestion that the system be taken off line until it could be fixed fully. Doing so "wouldn't delay people's cancer or diabetes or Parkinson's" disease, she told the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and the panel's chairman, said Sebelius must be "candidly, fully totally" forthcoming with Congress about the repair effort, "so that we don't wake up at the end of November and find out we're not there yet." He referred to the administration's goal for completing the repairs.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the panel's senior republican, was harsher.
"While I am glad that you are accepting responsibility for this disastrous rollout, I would have preferred that you and the rest of the administration were honest with us to begin with," he said.
"It is simply inexcusable that the members of this committee were not told earlier that these problems were occurring," Hatch said.
Sebelius acknowledged that using HealthCare.gov — the troubled website where millions of people are supposed to be able to purchase coverage — "has been frustrating for many Americans."
But she told the Senate Finance Committee that the site's problems are being steadily fixed and will operate smoothly for most people by the end of this month. And she said the insurance marketplaces that the law is setting up are resulting in lower rates, citing figures for some premiums that she said are 16 percent lower than estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and other data from Oregon, New York and elsewhere.
"The fact is that the Affordable Care Act delivered on the product: quality, affordable health insurance," she said.
To the chagrin of increasingly nervous Democrats, Republicans are also on the attack about the millions of Americans whose health insurers have told them their current policies are being canceled. Obama has said that people who liked their coverage would be able to keep it.
Sebelius testified a week ago to the Republican-run House Energy and Commerce Committee.
At that confrontational session, she apologized for the troubles dogging the website where uninsured Americans and those buying coverage privately are supposed to be able to purchase health insurance. The secretary, who numerous Republicans have said should resign, has promised the site would be fixed by the end of this month and says it is secure.
Insurers are sending cancellation notices to customers whose current policies lack enough coverage to meet the law's more demanding standards — at least 3.5 million Americans, according to an Associated Press survey of states.
The Obama administration has said people facing cancellations will be able to find better coverage from their current insurance company or on state or federal exchanges where competing policies are being offered.
Lawmakers of both parties have introduced rival bills that would let people retain their existing health insurance policies. But administration officials refused to state their views Tuesday on those proposals.
White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested the White House would resist letting insurance companies continue offering substandard plans, saying that would undermine the law's fundamental promise of better health care.
"We're focused on implementing the Affordable Care Act," Carney said, using the law's formal name.
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