Insurance Cancellations Elbow Out Website Woes At Health Hearing : Shots - Health News For Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, the big question was not why isn't the website working. It was why are people being told their insurance is being cancelled when President Obama said they can keep it, no matter what. Administration officials said the new coverage will be better.

Insurance Cancellations Elbow Out Website Woes At Health Hearing

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The head of the agency most directly involved in rolling out the troubled website testified today on Capitol Hill. Her message: we're sorry. But surprisingly most of the questions put to Marilyn Tavenner weren't even about the site or its many problems. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, lawmakers grilled her on a long ago promise made by President Obama.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Tavenner, who leads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, began with an apology for the rocky rollout of the federal health exchange, something the computer contractors who testified before a different House committee last week neglected to offer.

MARILYN TAVENNER: We know that consumers are eager to purchase this coverage and to the millions of Americans who've attempted to use to shop and enroll in health care coverage, I want to apologize to you that the website has not worked as well as it should.

ROVNER: But most of the hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee was consumed with Republicans who repeating a vow President Obama made often during the debate over the health law and ever since. Here's Illinois' Peter Roskam quoting the president.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER ROSKAM: If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away no matter what.

ROVNER: It's turning out that's not the case. It's not yet clear exactly how many, but likely millions of people who currently buy their own insurance are now getting letters saying their insurance plans are ending because they don't meet the requirements of the new law.

Many members of the committee, including Roskam, read letters from constituents who say they'll have to pay more for new coverage.

ROSKAM: Can you understand the level of frustration and concern about what many Americans perceive to be a false claim from the administration?

ROVNER: Tavenner, however, says it's not that simple and it's not all bad. Many people who say they like their current plans, don't realize how little they cover.

TAVENNER: Sometimes they were in plans that they thought were fine until they actually needed hospitalization, then they found out it didn't cover hospitalization or it didn't cover cancer.

ROVNER: Now, she told the committee, health plans will have to meet the new minimum requirements of the health law.

TAVENNER: You can't be denied. You won't be kicked off of a policy because you develop a problem. You may be eligible for tax credits, depending on your income. So these are important protections that are now available through the Affordable Care Act, and I think that's important.

ROVNER: And at the White House, spokesman Jay Carney pointed out that some people might do better financially by changing plans.

JAY CARNEY: You're actually going to pay less come January for better coverage than what you're paying now.

ROVNER: How many will pay less isn't clear. Back at the hearing, Republicans also pressed Tavenner on when the administration will release figures on how many people have managed to successfully enroll in health plans so far. To each she gave the same answer.

TAVENNER: That number will not be available till mid-November. We have over 700,000 who have completed applications.

ROVNER: How many people sign up will be a key measure of the success or failure of the entire enterprise. All together, the administration is counting on seven million people to enroll between now and the end of March, but it's not just how many that will determine the viability of the insurance plans, but who, as committee chairman Dave Camp pointed out.

REPRESENTATIVE DAVE CAMP: And I think critically important of that 7 million, 2.3 million of those need to be young and healthy

ROVNER: That's so there are enough healthy people in the insurance market to balance out those with preexisting health conditions who, for the first time, insurers will be required to cover. Tavenner said she wasn't concerned about a slow start, even with the computer problems.

TAVENNER: The Massachusetts experience was very slow initially and then it started to ramp up over time. We expect that same type of projections.

ROVNER: Massachusetts implemented the same sort of requirement for most people to have insurance or pay a fine back in 2006. Tavenner repeated the administration's promise to have the website's problems cured by the end of November. Tomorrow, it's Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' turn to testify before Congress. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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