Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius apologized Wednesday for the mounting technical problems with the rollout of the Obamacare health care exchange website.
"You deserve better. I apologize. I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems and I'm committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site," Sebelius said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. Adding later, "Hold me accountable for the debacle. I am responsible."
Since the healthcare.gov site rolled out on Oct. 1, customers have encountered debilitating frozen web pages, long wait times and inaccurate cost estimates.
Sebelius promised lawmakers Wednesday that the $118 million website's glitches would be fixed and that healthcare.gov would be fully functioning by the end of November.
"We are making improvements each and every day," she said.
The HHS secretary conceded that the website had not been accurately vetted and tested before it went live, noting that two weeks was not enough time to do the "end to end testing" such a complex project required.
Since the exchanges opened at the beginning of the month, more than 700,000 people have applied for coverage and 20 million people have visited the site. But the Obama administration has kept the number of customers enrolled in the Affordable Care Act exchange a secret. Wednesday, Sebelius set low expectations, noting the first month's numbers would not be strong.
"Given our flawed launch of healthcare.gov it will be a very small number," Sebelius warned.
The hearing was scheduled to give Republicans and Democrats a chance to understand the technical obstacles remaining before the health care marketplace could be fully functional, but GOP lawmakers took advantage of the opportunity to air major grievances with Obamacare at large, a law they have voted more than 40 times to repeal.
Many Republicans, including Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., accused President Barack Obama of misleading the American public when he promised in 2010 and again during the campaign of 2012 that if Americans liked their health care coverage "they could keep it."
Blackburn told the story of constituents in her district who had received a letter in the mail alerting them that their insurance coverage would be canceled.
"What do you say to 300,000 people in Florida you just mentioned or to the 28,000 in Tennessee that cannot get health insurance?" Blackburn said. "Their plans are terminated. Is [the president] keeping his promise to them?"
Sebelius pushed back, arguing that insurance companies cancel plans every year and were required under the law to provide alternative plans. Many of the plans being canceled, Sebelius noted, were inefficient and did not cover customers at the levels Obamacare required.
"They must be offered new plans, new options, either inside the market marketplace, or if they don't qualify for a financial subsidy, they can shop in or outside of the marketplace," Sebelius said.
Blackburn, visibly irritated, shot back "I will remind you: some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red solo cup and not a crystal stem. You're taking away their choice."
Republicans also confronted Sebelius about other pressing issues regarding personal security, asking her why source code in the website included a disclaimer that customers should not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Sebelius simply said the code should never have been included and explained it had been embedded in error.
Democrats blasted their Republican colleagues for turning the bipartisan hearing a political showdown.
"I would urge my colleagues to stop hyperventilating," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., argued Republicans were not interested at all in actually fixing the problems in the website.
"You love what is wrong with the website and you detest what is right," she quipped.