WASHINGTON -- Republicans on Wednesday blistered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the nation's controversial health care law, bluntly challenging her honesty, pushing for her resignation and demanding unsuccessfully that she concede that President Barack Obama deliberately misled the public about his signature domestic program.
"We're not in it to just give you a rough time. We're in it to try and hopefully get it right," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, at a hearing where Republicans -- all of whom had voted against "Obamacare" -- focused on the program's flawed sign-up website as well as costs, policy cancellations and security concerns.
During two hours in the Senate Finance Committee witness chair, Ms. Sebelius parried some thrusts and listened impassively to others. Treated more gently by Democrats, she said at one point: "Clearly, the opposition is still quite ferocious, and I'm just hoping that people understand what their options are, what their benefits could be and what their opportunities are."
She offered few if any concessions about a program she pointedly observed "passed both houses of Congress, was signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court." Nor did she provide much new about a website launch she has conceded was deeply flawed. She disclosed that the so-called punch list for repairs included "a couple of hundred functional fixes" when the administration launched its urgent rescue mission last month. Even now, she said, "we're not where we need to be."
She added that the Web portal now is handling large volumes of material with fewer errors. But as she testified, the website, www.HealthCare.gov, was running sluggishly.
At a Dallas synagogue Wednesday, Mr. Obama assured volunteers that their efforts to sign up people for coverage would be well worth the trouble. "As challenging as this may seem sometimes, as frustrating as HealthCare.gov may be sometimes, we are going to get his done," he said.
Just before leaving Washington, the president met with 16 Democratic senators facing re-election in 2014 to discuss the troubled website rollout. They pressed him to extend the March 31 enrollment deadline, but White House press secretary Jay Carney said he rejected the idea.
Republican criticism and questions have turned in recent days to other concerns, some blending policy and politics.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, one of Ms. Sebelius' most aggressive questioners, read aloud from a White House website page that says: "If you like your plan, you can keep it and you don't have to change a thing due to the health care law." Turning to her, he said: "Well, we know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately lying to the American people is not. I'd just like to ask you a simple true-or-false question. Is that statement on the White House website true, or is it false?"
She said "a vast majority" of people insured through their jobs would keep their plans, and "a majority" of the 11 million in the individual market will keep plans with stronger coverage, while "others will have to choose ... if they have a brand new plan, and [it's] not a grandfathered ... a plan that they no longer get medically underwritten. ..."
At the heart of Mr. Cornyn's questioning were the recent cancellation notices that insurance firms sent to millions of individual policyholders, despite the president's assurances dating to 2009 that people would be able to keep coverage if they liked it. Several other Republicans also referred to the cancellations in questioning Ms. Sebelius.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked if it violated Mr. Obama's promise that so many plans were canceled for falling short of the law's coverage mandates. Ms. Sebelius said, "For the vast majority of people who get employer-based health care, are in a public plan, are in the VA plan, are in Medicare [or] are part of the insurance market, their plans are very much in place. There is change coming in the individual marketplace, with consumer protections that many people have never" had.
Rather than ask questions, Kansas' Republican Sen. Pat Roberts -- the secretary is the state's former governor -- used his time to raise complaints about the law and her performance as the administration official in charge. Mr. Roberts, who faces a Tea Party challenger in his re-election bid next year, noted delays for parts of the law and said website woes have caused public uncertainty and fear.
"You have said America should hold you ... accountable," he said, "which is why today, Madam Secretary, I repeat my request for you to resign."
She did not respond.