NEW: Democratic senator urges Obama to extend enrollment, delay "mandate" penalty
Sebelius: Obama didn't know of issues, despite companies' complaints, crash during test run
Delaying the website's launch was "not really an option," Sebelius says
She tells CNN an "A-Team" of experts coming in, 3 weeks after launch
Before it even launched, red flags went up about the Obamacare website. Health insurance companies complained about it, and the site crashed during a test run. But nobody told the President of any of it, the nation’s health chief told CNN.
In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the Health and Human Services secretary admitted that her department and the White House are displeased with the technically botched website’s rollout.
“But not before that?” Gupta followed up.
To which Sebelius replied, “No, sir.”
Sebelius admitted that there is concern in her department and the White House over the technical debacle surrounding the website rollout, saying “no one could be more frustrated than I am and the president.” The site was supposed to make it simple for people to search and sign-up for new health care policies starting on October 1, but instead it’s been clunky and, at times, inoperable.
“We’re not at all satisfied with the workings of the website,” she said. “We want it to be smooth and easy and let consumers compare plans.”
A team of high-tech experts from within the government and from Silicon Valley is going to tackle the issues, Sebelius said. Jeff Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, will lead the team.
So 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.
But now, she said, “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 accelerate the fix as quickly as possible.”
The secretary attributed some problems to “extremely high” volume, saying nearly 20 million people came to the Obamacare website in the first three weeks after its launch. Yet only 500,000 people have created accounts on the website. And not all of them have necessarily enrolled in health care plans.
It’s not like no one saw this coming. When the website crashed during a test run, just a few hundred users were on it.
But the Obama administration went ahead with the launch. Waiting was not an option, Sebelius said.
“There are people in this country who have waited for decades for affordable health coverage for themselves and their families,” she said.
Before the website’s launch, Republicans made targeting the program a centerpiece of their agenda. Many insisted they wouldn’t vote to fund the entire government unless Obamacare was defunded or delayed.
They said that the website’s woes show that the Obama 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,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, 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. She also asked that he consider delaying assessment of a penalty to those who don’t sign up for any health insurance before the so-called individual mandate kicks in.
“As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance,” Shaheen wrote.
Even Obama has been critical, insisting Monday that there’s “no excuse for the problems.” But he also said the problems should not amount to a blanket condemnation of the Affordable Care Act.
“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.”
Several top Republicans – including 2012 vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan – have called on Sebelius 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,” she told Gupta.
While refusing to give a timetable Tuesday as to when the website will be fully operational, Sebelius insisted “it’s improving every day, and more people are getting through.”
“More people are having an easier time,” she said, “and we intend to stay at this until we open the doors wide open.”
And it’s too early to call the rollout a failure, the health secretary said. There’s still a long time 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 better decide whether this part of Obamacare is a success or a failure.
Sebelius, rather than being disheartened by the website criticisms, says that what’s happened so far leaves her optimistic.
“What we’re seeing in not only the states that are run by the federal website, but states around the country, is that interest is huge,” she said. “People are eager to have this affordable product, and that product is there.”