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Sebelius' Obamacare damage control fuels critics' fire

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Thu October 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On CNN, Kathleen Sebelius says President didn't know about problems until rollout
  • Spokesman for House speaker said Sebelius "has a lot of questions to answer"
  • Republicans are using the rollout debacle to highlight their opposition to the law

Washington (CNN) -- Kathleen Sebelius did little to alleviate concerns about Obamacare even after she took to the airwaves on Tuesday in her first public explanation of the health insurance program's website woes.

Instead, in an exclusive interview with CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the multitude of problems the enrollment website has experienced, the Health and Human Services secretary stoked more opposition.

"There are a couple of things she said that are likely to increase some of the scrutiny," Chief National Correspondent John King said on CNN's "New Day."

Sebelius told Gupta that she told government contractors who worked on building the website that they need to bring in "the A-Team," leading Gupta to ask whether the A-team wasn't in place before the problems became exposed.

Sebelius: Obamacare website problems blindsided the President

Sebelius also said President Barack Obama didn't find out about the extent of the problem until after the enrollment website, HealthCare.gov, was launched October 1.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, Brendan Buck, said in a statement that "she has a lot of questions to answer, and we look forward to her testimony in the House next week."

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Political fallout from Obamacare problems

Sebelius had been invited to this week's hearing but had a scheduling conflict, her office said. The House Energy and Commerce Committee says she is expected to testify at an October 30 hearing on the cause of the problems.

Republicans question the president's engagement in the most significant legislative achievement of his presidency, and critics want to know the extent of the problems plaguing the error-prone website, something the administration has been unable to answer.

"What's not helping is a lack of transparency on the part of this administration," House Republican leader Eric Cantor said Wednesday.

Cantor wants the administration to release the number of people who have signed up, but Sebelius said those numbers won't be released until next month.

The Virginia Republican also wants an independent analysis of the site's traffic. Sebelius said 19 million people have visited the site and 1.1 million have called in to the call center, something of which Cantor is skeptical.

Sebelius told Gupta that she had been "optimistic that things would go smoothly" once enrollment went public October 1.

Twenty-one days later, however, she said, "there are some challenges. It could be smoother; it could be easier to access."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: 5 surprises from Sebelius interview

Republicans are jumping on her statements, using the debacle as a platform to call for the law to be delayed and Sebelius to be fired.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement Wednesday that "Either Secretary Sebelius is lying to protect President Obama or the president needs to get control of his signature healthcare law. Neither answer bodes well for Americans or for the Obama Administration as hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted and Americans stand to be penalized for the Obama Administration's failures.

"Mr. President, we don't need you to be 'mad' about ObamaCare, we need you to do something about it," Priebus said.

The GOP, which has repeatedly failed to roll back the law and caused the government to shut down over it, vows to do everything it can to dismantle the health care law. Its members will use their most powerful tool at the moment: the megaphone.

Hearings begin Thursday in the House on the dysfunctional enrollment process that has made it difficult -- or impossible -- for consumers to sign up online.

A recent poll by ABC News/Washington Post shows that a majority of respondents think the website's problems are an indicator of problems with the program itself.

Fifty-six percent of those questioned in the survey, which was released Monday, say the website failures are a sign of broader problems to come, with four in 10 saying they are an isolated incident.

Questions and concerns among lawmakers continue to mount, and not only among Republicans. Democrats, who voted for the law and have staked their political reputation defending it, are starting to get nervous.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire was the first to suggest that Obama delay the fine for people who don't sign up. Shaheen, who is up for re-election in 2014, is asking the Obama administration to extend open enrollment past March 31.

Though Sebelius didn't respond specifically to Shaheen's request, she said officials are not looking at postponing the January 1 date to obtain benefits.

"Waiting is not really an option," she said, adding that people are signing up and that people have been wanting health care for "decades."

Reluctant to focus his critique solely on the website, Boehner says the problems go well beyond the application portal.

"Clearly, there's problems with the website, but I would argue that the problems go much further than that," Boehner said. "More Americans are going to lose their health insurance than are going to sign up at these exchanges. This is a very serious problem."

Administration to kick off effort to encourage enrollment

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, said Wednesday that "the real glitch is the law itself."

"People are frustrated with the website, but the product is there. The prices are good. It will not sell out, and the prices will not change," Sebelius said, attempting to reassure Americans that website problems won't diminish the services offered.

Unfortunately, not everyone has been able to access those services. And the administration can't explain what the problem is and when it will be fixed.

CNN's Jim Acosta and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report

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