By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s top health official on Wednesday called the rollout of the website that is central to President Barack Obama’s signature insurance reform a “debacle” but blamed insurers for cancelling the health plans of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The government has scrambled for weeks to fix the troubled insurance exchange website that has frustrated millions of Americans who want to sign up for new health plans under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.
Now it is trying to put out a separate fire that Republican critics of the law say calls into question the administration’s honesty as well as its competence.
Obama, who is due to speak about the healthcare reform later on Wednesday, and other administration officials have repeatedly promised that the 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance would be able to keep their current plans.
But because the law requires insurers to offer a higher level of coverage, millions of Americans on individual coverage plans may see their policies canceled at the end of the year. Many face higher monthly payments for new plans that in some cases are beyond what they can afford.
Speaking on Capitol Hill, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the botched rollout of the Healthcare.gov website and vowed to win back the confidence of millions of disappointed Americans.
“Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible,” Sebelius told the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.
At the same time, Sebelius said private insurers were making “business decisions” in cancelling some members’ coverage. The Affordable Care Act protected policies made before it was signed into law in 2010, she said.
“Insurance companies cancel individual policies year in and year out,” Sebelius said.
She said those who lost coverage were victims of a market long known for discriminating against the sick and selling inadequate coverage – shortcomings that the law known as Obamacare was designed to fix. “People are on their own. They can be locked out, priced out, dumped out,” she said.
Sebelius has drawn intense criticism from Republicans who have sought to derail the healthcare overhaul since Obama took office in 2009, culminating in a 16-day government shutdown earlier this month that has cost the U.S. economy an estimated $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor’s ratings agency.
Opinion polls show that most Americans blame Republicans for that standoff, but Obamacare’s woes have allowed them to shift the spotlight since the government reopened nearly two weeks ago.
“For those who lose the coverage they like, they may also be losing faith in their government,” said Michigan Representative Fred Upton, the Republican who oversaw the hearing.
U.S. presidents have a limited time to enact their agenda in the second term before they start turning into lame ducks. The first year is the best as they have momentum from re-election, but then lawmakers start worrying about midterm elections.
The growing crisis surrounding Obama’s signature legislative achievement could diminish his influence in Congress and threaten his ability to get other priorities like immigration reform signed into law in his remaining three years in office.
Obama’s fellow Democrats question how he could have botched the debut of the most ambitious safety-net program since the 1960s.
“Our guys are frustrated by Obama’s unforced errors,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “How could the president not be ready for the rollout?”
Obama is due to talk about Obamacare at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT) in Boston’s historic Fanueil Hall, where in 2006 then-Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate last year, signed a state law that served as a model for Obama’s health reforms.
Like Obamacare, that law had a rocky start as well – state officials delayed some aspects for several months and only 123 people signed up in the first month it was available. By the end of the year-long enrollment period, 36,000 had signed up.
The Obama administration likewise expects “a very small number” of people to sign up initially for coverage, Sebelius said. Overall, U.S. officials hope 7 million people sign up in the first year, and Americans who don’t have health coverage by March 31 face a financial penalty.
The parallels between Obamacare and “Romneycare” only go so far.
Romney’s law enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Massachusetts, spurring the Republican to mount a presidential bid that fell short in 2008.
Romney downplayed his health law when he ran for president and argued that health reforms are best tackled at the state level. He reiterated that on Wednesday.
“Nothing has changed my view that a plan crafted to fit the unique circumstances of a single state should not be grafted onto the entire country,” Romney said in a prepared statement.