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Health chief: Sorry about website, but don't blame Obamacare if insurance is canceled (BizJournals)

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Warmup acts often get a hostile reception, but maybe Marilyn Tavenner's rocky experience on Capitol Hill Tuesday can help Kathleen Sebelius -- Obamacare's main act -- get ready for her performance on Wednesday.

Tavenner, who heads the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was grilled for nearly three hours by the House Ways and Means Committee about the problems with, the web site individuals are supposed to use to find health insurance through the federal government's new exchange. But committee Republicans spent just as much time asking Tavenner about another issue: the notices millions of Americans are getting from their insurance companies informing them that their current insurance policies are being canceled.

Tavenner struggled with both issues. Sebelius, who is secretary of Health and Human Services, will appear Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Can Sebelius come up with better answers than CMS' Tavenner, whose agency inside HHS administers health care reform, or are the facts about Obamacare too damning to be spun away? We'll find out Thursday. Meanwhile, here are four takeaways from Wednesday's hearing.

Obama's promise that you can keep your current insurance is now the GOP's main focus

In order to sell health care reform, President Barack Obama repeatedly promised that, "if you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep it." He continued to make that promise after the law was enacted, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Now insurers are notifying millions of Americans that their insurance plans are being canceled because they don't meet Obamacare's standards. Insurers are offering these Americans more comprehensive, but more expensive, policies or advising their customers to shop for insurance on either or state exchanges.

At Wednesday's hearing, Republican after Republican read letters from their constituents complaining about how their current insurance being canceled and forced to buy much more expensive insurance.

Tavenner had two answers for this situation. First, she correctly noted, Americans never had any guarantee that they could keep their current insurance plan. Insurers always had the option of changing their plans from year to year, and many did so. What's happening now, she said, is that insurers whose old plans were grandfathered in back in 2010 have now decided to offer plans that comply with the Affordable Care Act's higher standards.

That's good for consumers, she said, because now they'll have better insurance.

But many Americans are finding out that better insurance costs more, and they'd rather stick with what they had.

Plus, Tavenner failed to address whether Obama was guilty of false advertising when he promised Americans that they could keep their insurance if they liked it.

"Isn't that a lie?" asked Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill.

All Tavenner could say in response was that insurers decided to change their policies.

We still don't know how many people have enrolled for insurance through

Tavenner was repeatedly asked how many Americans have enrolled for health insurance through, and she repeatedly said those numbers would be available Nov. 15. But she wouldn't say whether she knew what the current numbers are.

"We didn't get anything from her on that," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. "That was a big disappointment."

While more than 700,000 people have applied for coverage through the web site, only a small number of people are expected to enroll in an insurance plan in the site's first few weeks. That's partly due to the website's failure to work properly, and partly due to the fact that individuals have until March 31 to sign up for coverage through

But Camp worries that is going to fall far short of the government's goal of 7 million enrollees by the end of March, including 2.3 million young adults. If far fewer individuals enroll for coverage -- particularly young Americans -- then premiums could skyrocket in 2015, Camp said. That's because there wouldn't be enough healthy people in the insurance risk pool to offset the cost of older, sicker Americans.

Tavenner apologizes for's problems and promises they'll be fixed

Give Tavenner, a former hospital executive, some credit: She at least said she was sorry.

"I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should," Tavenner said.

The problems "can and will be fixed," she said, by Nov. 30.

Last week, the contractors who developed the site said CMS was partly to blame for the website's problems because it didn't allow enough time for testing. At Tuesday's hearing, Tavenner said "continuous testing" was done on the site before it launched but that more users visited in its first few hours than CMS expected. The agency should have done bigger load testing, she acknowledged.

But she also pointed the finger of blame back at's contractors.

"Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for have not met expectations," Tavenner said.

More resources are being devoted to fixing those problems, and it will be "in good working order" by the end of November, she said.

Are Sebelius' job -- and Obamacare's individual mandate -- on the line?

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee with oversight responsibility for health care reform, joined the ranks of those who called on Sebelius to resign over's problems.

"Expecting this secretary to be able to fix in a few weeks what she has not been able to fix during the last three and one half years is unrealistic," Alexander said Tuesday. "It is throwing good money after bad."

"No private-sector chief executive officer would escape accountability after such a poor performance," Alexander said.

Alexander is no Tea Party Republican -- he's got a long history of working across party lines. So losing his support puts even more pressure on Sebelius to demonstrate that she's on top of this issue and that's problems were only temporary glitches.

Meanwhile, Camp said Obamacare's problems go beyond the website; the law is fundamentally flawed. At the least, he said, the mandate for individuals to buy insurance in 2014 or face a tax should be delayed, just like the employer mandate was delayed, he said.

The National Association for the Self-Employed also called for a delay in the individual mandate on Wednesday. Most of its members buy insurance on the individual market, and two-thirds of them expect they'll have to pay more for coverage in 2014, according to an NASE survey.

"The launch of the new health care exchanges have been marred in structural and technical glitches from day one when the focus should be on providing access to affordable health care," said Katie Vlietstra, NASE's director of government affairs. "Eliminating the open enrollment deadline would allow adequate time for small businesses and Americans nationwide to become better informed about the options available and costs associated with the new health care plans."

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