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Obamacare problems are bigger than health insurance website

Health Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is sworn before House Energy Commerce Committee where she is testifying about problematic debut

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is sworn in before the House Energy and Commerce Committee where she is testifying about the problematic debut of the Affordable Care Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. The Obama Administration claims the botched rollout was the result of contractors failing to live up to expectations – not bad management at HHS. As the public face of President Barack Obama's signature health care program, Sec. Sebelius has become the target for attacks over its botched rollout, with Republicans, and even some Democrats, calling for her to resign. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Updated: December 2, 2013 12:21PM

WASHINGTON — The botched Obamacare rollout has done more short-term harm to President Barack Obama’s signature health insurance law than anything his most strident critics could have dreamed up.

Why bother defunding or delaying tactics when you can just stand back and watch an implosion?

“Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a House panel on Wednesday.

“You deserve better. I apologize. I am accountable to you for fixing these problems, and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site,” she said.

But Sebelius is taking the blame mainly for the inept Oct. 1 enrollment launch of the health insurance marketplaces at that the federal government is running.

The site was down during her House testimony and while Obama was in Boston defending the benefits of Obamacare.

Obama said “there’s no excuse for the rollout mess. And I take full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP. We are working overtime to improve it every day.”

A more substantial problem for the longer-term health of the law is that the pledge Obama has made for years — “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan” — is turning out not to be true for some (not most of us). But those are the stories we are hearing a lot about now.

I can’t say it better than Glenn Kessler, who in his Wednesday Washington Post Fact Check column wrote, “The president’s statements were sweeping and unequivocal — and made both before and after the bill became law. The White House now cites technicalities to avoid admitting that he went too far in his repeated pledge, which, after all, is one of the most famous statements of his presidency.”

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., held up Kessler’s column at the hearing and asked Sebelius, “Would you recommend to the president that he stop using that term? Wouldn’t that be helpful in this debate?”

I asked former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau if in hindsight, there should have been some hedges injected into Obama’s speeches with the sales pitch.

“I think the message that he was trying to convey was that people, because of Obamacare, were not going to get forced into some government plan,” he said.


◆ On whether Sebelius will resign: Let’s be practical. Can you see the Republicans in the Senate confirming a new HHS secretary without slow-walking a nomination and a big fight? Obama and Sebelius have to concentrate on fixing the website problems and getting people to enroll — not in passing the baton to a new secretary.

If website flaws are repaired quickly, calls for Sebelius’ head will be muted. The overpromising on Obamacare — that’s the president’s problem. There was a time when there was a countdown clock on Attorney General Eric Holder, and he’s still on the job.

◆ Shimkus on abortion coverage: The anti-abortion Illinois lawmaker got Sebelius to agree to make it easier for people shopping in the marketplaces to find a policy that does not offer abortion coverage.

◆ On backup plans: I’m optimistic the technical glitches can be fixed. A more substantial problem lurking in the background came out in the House hearing on Wednesday: What if young and healthy people who are not insured decline to enroll in Obamacare? Health insurance companies selling policies on the new marketplaces are counting on those new customers to help keep down the price of insurance.

Obamacare is a great deal for people who have no insurance at present. Still, what if they don’t sign up?

Sebelius was asked: “Do you have backup plans?”

She didn’t offer much of an answer.


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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