NEW: HHS secretary's comments "surprising," Senate GOP leadership aide tells CNN
Delaying the website's launch was "not really an option," the nation's health chief says
She says an "A-Team" of experts is coming in, 3 weeks after the website's launch
Warren Buffett: "It's a huge screw-up, but it will get worked out"
[Breaking news update 1:35 p.m. ET]
President Barack Obama knew there would be “glitches” and said ahead of time there would be problems in the October 1 rollout of a key part of his health care initiative, but “there is no question that we did not anticipate the scale of problems with the website,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday. Separately, Carney said the Department of Health and Human Services will begin conducting daily briefings on Thursday about progress toward fixing problems with the Healthcare.gov website.
[Original story moved at 8:56 a.m. ET]
President Barack Obama didn’t know of problems with the Affordable Care Act’s website – despite insurance companies’ complaints and the site’s crashing during a test run – until after its now well-documented abysmal launch, the nation’s health chief told CNN on Tuesday.
Kathleen Sebelius said President Barack Obama didn’t hear that there may be problems with the sign-up portal for his signature health care law until it went live on October 1. That’s when the site nosedived into a technical abyss.
In an exclusive interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked when the President first learned about the considerable issues with the Obamacare website. Sebelius responded that it was in “the first couple of days” after the site went live October 1.
“No one could be more frustrated than I am and the President,” she said.
The site was supposed to make it simple for people to search and sign up for new health care policies, but instead it’s been clunky and, at times, inoperable. And for Sebelius, that’s disappointing.
“We’re not at all satisfied with the workings of the website,” Sebelius said. “We want it to be smooth and easy and let consumers compare plans.”
Bringing the ‘A-Team’
She noted how a team of high-tech experts from within the government and from Silicon Valley, and led by Jeff Zients – a former CEO and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, who will oversee the process for the next few months – is coming to help address the issues. Their arrival was announced earlier Tuesday.
Why weren’t they brought in before the website launched October 1?
“We (had) hoped that they had their ‘A-Team’ on the table” from the start, Sebelius said of the contractors and agencies responsible for the project.
As to now, “We want new eyes and ears. We want to make sure that we get all the questions on the table, that we get all the answers and accelerator the fix as quickly as possible.”
The secretary attributed some of the problems to “extremely high” volume, claiming nearly 20 million people came to the Obamacare website in the first three weeks after its launched. Yet only a fraction of those have signed up for new health care policies; Sebelius said Tuesday that 500,000 accounts had been created, but that doesn’t mean all those people enrolled in a plan.
It’s not like no one saw this coming. A number of insurance companies complained of problems ahead of the October 1 launch, and the website crashed during a test run although just a few hundred users were on it.
Despite the issues, the Obama administration went forward with the website.
“There are people in this country who have waited for decades for affordable health coverage for themselves and their families,” said Sebelius, explaining why the launch wasn’t pushed back. “…So waiting is not really an option.”
A political lightning rod
Sebelius’ comments struck some Republicans as surprising and even odd.
“At this point, she has a lot of questions to answer, and we look forward to her testimony in the House next week,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
A Senate GOP leadership aide called the situation “odd.”
“Everyone was surprised by her statement that the President was unaware of the website’s failures until a few days into it,” the aide told CNN.
“They had been claiming that the Obamacare rollout was his top priority and that he was receiving regular updates, which was inaccurate. And he gave remarks on October 1 about how great it was and that people should go sign up,” the aide said. “Assuming that he didn’t know that the website didn’t work, why did they let him make that speech when they knew it had crashed in testing? Did really no one recommend a delay to the President? It just seems odd.”
Republicans – who, even before the website’s launch, had made targeting the program a centerpiece of their agenda, even initially insisting they wouldn’t vote to fund the entire government unless Obamacare was defunded or delayed – have been vociferous critics.
They claim that the website’s woes show that Obama’s administration and the federal government generally aren’t capable of executing what the GOP says was an ill-advised program from the get-go.
“God only knows how much money they’ve spent, and it’s a failure,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, the leading Republican in the Senate, said Sunday on CBS. “The government isn’t going to be able to get this job done correctly.”
On the other side, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire sent a letter to Obama asking that the open enrollment period be extended past March 31, 2014, and that he consider delaying assessment of a penalty to individuals who don’t sign up for any health insurance before the so-called “individual mandate” kicks in.
Even the man whose name is forever tied to the health care reform has been critical, insisting Monday there’s “no excuse for the problems” while at the same time insisting these should not equate to blanket condemnation of the Affordable Care Act as a whole.
“Nobody’s madder than me about the website not working as well as it should,” Obama said, “which means it’s going to get fixed.”
Calls for resignation
Several top Republicans – including 2012 vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan – have called on Sebelius herself to step down due to the program’s problems. The secretary skirted questions Tuesday about whether she’d step down, saying only that she works “at the pleasure of the president” and is committed to her job.
“I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right,” Sebelius told Gupta. “And that’s really what I’m focused on.”
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett stood up for Sebelius in an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan on Tuesday night.
“I am a friend of Kathleen’s, and I’m a friend of her when she’s in trouble,” he said. “I like Kathleen. I feel sorry for her in the position she’s in. Obviously, it’s a huge screw-up, but it will get worked out.”
Sebelius refused to give a timetable Tuesday as to when the website will be fully operational, but she insisted it’s improving every day.
“More people are having an easier time,” she said, “and we intend to stay at this until we open the door’s wide open.”
And it’s too early to call the rollout a failure, the health secretary argued. There’s a long way to go for people to take advantage in person, by calling or by using the website during the open-enrollment period.
When that six-month stretch is over, Sebelius said, people can make more valid judgments as to whether this part of Obamacare is a success or failure.
CNN’s Ben Brumfield, Tom Cohen and Lateef Mungin contributed to this report.
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