Obama Heads to Boston to Defend Obamacare While Kathleen Sebelius Takes Heat in D.C.

WH says focus should be on law's benefits, not website failings.

President Barack Obama is joined by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius while making a statement in the briefing room at the White House on Feb. 10, 2012 in Washington, D.C.
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While a top Obama administration official faces a panel of hostile House Republicans Wednesday in Washington, President Barack Obama will be trying to win over public support for his signature domestic achievement – the Affordable Care Act – in Massachusetts, whose law served as a model for the controversial program.upon.

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Obama will use a trip to Boston to highlight the bipartisan success of that state's law and emphasize the important reforms he thinks his comprehensive reform law makes, according to White House officials.

"The final thing that the president will speak to and address is at its core, the reason why he fought so hard for and continues to fight for the Affordable Care Act," said David Simas, an assistant to the president and deputy senior communications adviser during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Simas listed a variety of insurance reforms under the ACA, including guaranteeing coverage for those with pre-existing conditions and banning annual and lifetime coverage caps.

"This was the experience of health insurance prior to the Affordable Care Act and little by little, step by step as we move through this implementation, those days are in the past," he said.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to come before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday where she's expected to take heat for the failed rollout of healthcare.gov, the website designed to help those without insurance shop for and sign up for plans. The new law requires Americans to secure health care coverage by March or pay a fine. But the website has been plagued with trouble, leaving many unable to sign-up.

In testimony made public ahead of the hearing, Sebelius seems to blame the contractors who constructed the website for the messy unveiling.

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"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," she is expected to say, according to written testimony. "Among other issues, the initial wave of interest stressed the account service, resulting in many consumers experiencing difficulty signing up, while those who were able to sign up sometimes had problems logging in."

During a separate House committee hearing Tuesday, Republicans pressed a top HHS official to share how many people had actually been able to sign up so far, which she declined to answer.

"That number will not be revealed until mid-November," Marilyn Tavenner, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told members of the House Ways and Means Committee. "[But] more than 700,000 have created accounts. We expect the initial number [of sign-ups] to be small."

Simas said sign-ups in Massachusetts were slow in the beginning, but increased exponentially by the time the mandate deadline approached.

"123 people signed up first month, .3 percent [of the uninsured population]," he said. "More than 20 percent signed up in final month."

Jonathan Gruber, an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in Massachusetts, despite doom and gloom speculation, employer-sponsored insurance rose 10 percent, premiums in the individual insurance market fell by double-digit percentages.

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"We have to recognize that relevant mandate deadline for the national law is next March so the fact that people aren't even signed up now, for a policy they can't even get til January…is not at all interesting or important," he said on the White House press call. "The bottom line is, the success of health care reform needs to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks."

Republicans, however, are not convinced.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., noted in his opening remarks during Wednesday's hearing, "More people have been kicked off their health plan than have signed up."