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HHS chief: President didn't know of Obamacare website woes beforehand

By Greg Botelho, CNN
October 24, 2013 -- Updated 0229 GMT (1029 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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

(CNN) -- 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.

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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.

"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," Sebelius said. "We want it to be smooth and easy and let consumers compare plans."

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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.

Obamacare applications near half million

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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.

Report: Site failed ahead of rollout

"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."

Opinion: Obamacare a disaster that needs fixing

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.

"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 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.

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"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 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."

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 door's wide open."

Rubio calls for delay of Obamacare sign-up deadline

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 Fact Check: Obamacare

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."

Watch Anderson Cooper 360° weeknights 8pm ET. For the latest from AC360° click here.

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