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Lawmakers To Grill Sebelius On Affordable Care Act


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. More hearings come today on the messy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will face questions from the House, Energy and Commerce Committee. Now, yesterday, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid testified before a different committee. Marilyn Tavenner offered consumers an apology for the problems at the health website.


MARILYN TAVENNER: We know that the consumer experience has been frustrating for many Americans. Some have had trouble creating accounts and logging into the site, while others have received confusing error messages or had to wait for slow response times. This initial experience has not lived up to our expectations or the expectations of the American people, and it is not acceptable.

INSKEEP: Now, as the hearings continue, the president goes to Boston today. He'll be talking about health care. And we're going to talk about health care now with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's on the line. Hi, Mara.


INSKEEP: OK. So why in Boston for the president?

LIASSON: Well, it's a bit of counterprogramming to the Sebelius hearings, but he'll also be making the point about the arc of enrollment. In Massachusetts - which of course, was the model for his health care plan - only 123 people signed up in the first month. That's .3 percent of the eventual enrollment. And a full 20 percent signed up in the final month. This is why the administration doesn't want to give enrollment numbers until mid-November. But...

INSKEEP: So they're basically trying to say it was very slow in Massachusetts...

LIASSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...don't hammer us for being too slow.

LIASSON: That's right. But on a call yesterday, the administration admitted that there are limitations to the Massachusetts analogy. Yes, it was the model for the president's plan, but it's also very different. It's so much smaller, and it had bipartisan support from the very beginning.

INSKEEP: Now, here's some awkwardness. Republicans are pointing out news reports that a lot of people are seeing their policies - their old policies canceled, or their premiums go up under the new Obamacare rules. Does the White House have any answer to that?

LIASSON: Well, it does, but here's the problem. In order to sell the plan back in 2009, the president said this a lot.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period.


LIASSON: But that's just not true, in every case. What we're talking about here is about 5 percent of the population who are in the private individual market. They don't get their health care through their employer, or through Medicare or Medicaid. And some of them - we don't know how many of them - are seeing their plans canceled when their 12-month contracts come up because their plans don't meet the new standards for coverage in the Affordable Care Act.

Now, some of these people are going to have to pay a little more; some of them will pay less. The White House says in the end, more people will end up with better coverage and in some cases, cheaper coverage because of the subsidies. But the fact is, the Affordable Care Act is a disrupter. This is why the White House wanted this rolled out after the president was re-elected.

And the problem is that the president raised expectations. He went out and said the website will be as easy to use as buying a plane ticket on Kayak. He said your insurance won't change, if you like it. But health insurance is very complicated. There are premiums, and there are deductibles, and there are co-pays; and the law affects different people in different ways. So for every positive anecdote, you can find a negative one. The president made it sound so simple, and those promises are now coming back to haunt him.

INSKEEP: And even in that tape you played, he included the punctuation. It wasn't "comma" and then some qualifiers. He actually said "period" - this will happen. It turned out to be far more complex. But I do want to ask, Mara Liasson - because this is a debate that has been so heated, so intense. And the people who are saying that the president was untruthful, or even that he lied, are in some cases people who've talked about death panels in the law; who've said the IRS was going to be coming after people with squads of goons. They've talked about socialism. There's been extraordinary rhetoric surrounding this entire debate for years. Is it a little late for anyone to complain about anybody being untruthful?

LIASSON: It's never too late for anybody to complain.

INSKEEP: (Laughter)

LIASSON: I mean, the problem is that today, when Secretary Sebelius takes the stand - of course, Republicans will call for her resignation - but she's going to get questions not just about the website; now, the focus is on this new line of attack: Why are people's plans being changed when the president said they wouldn't be? And why are people getting cancellation notices at the same time they can't get on the website to look for a new plan?

So yes, people - everyone has exaggerated and been untruthful in the past. But right now, the big questions of credibility and competence are directed at the administration, and Sebelius is going to bear the brunt of them today.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks - as always.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.