(Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius appeared in a television interview for the first time since her resignation, and described the Obama administration's calculation that the law's online sign-up system would be ready by Oct. 1 as "just flat out wrong."
"Clearly, the estimate that it was ready to go Oct. 1 was just flat out wrong," Sebelius told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, of the launch of HealthCare.gov.
She announced her resignation last week, following which President Barack Obama nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office and Management and Budget, as her replacement.
"Well, I think there's no question - and I've said this many times - that the launch of the website was terribly flawed and terribly difficult," Sebelius said.
"If I had a magic wand and could go back to mid-September and ask different questions based on what I know now. … I thought I was getting the best information from the best experts, but clearly that didn't go well. … Could we have used more time and testing? You bet."
She added that Obama's Dec. 1 deadline for the website's repair was also a nail-biting experience. "Having failed once at the front of October, the first of December became a critical juncture. That was a pretty scary date."
Sebelius said she made the decision to quit after the 2012 presidential election but chose instead to stay through the sign-up period. The outgoing secretary added that the president did not ask her to stay through the end of his term. "I thought it was fair to either commit till January of 2017 or leave with enough time that he would get a strong, competent leader."
She also talked about the most difficult time of her tenure. "Well, I would say that the eight weeks where the site was not functioning well for the vast majority of people was a pretty dismal time," she said. "And I was, frankly, hoping and watching and measuring the benchmarks. But, having failed once at the front of October, the first of December became a critical juncture."
A week before she resigned, sign-ups for insurance coverage ended with 7.1 million enrollments, more than initially expected. However, the health care website had stalled for about six hours on the deadline day for the first year of enrollment on March 31. And it is not known how many have paid their premiums and how many of the previously uninsured have signed up.
Sebelius defended Obamacare, saying it gives millions of Americans access to health care. "People have competitive choices and real information for the first time ever in this insurance market," she said.
As budget director, Sebelius' replacement knows about the health care law and also the president's concerns about the problems the Affordable Care Act has posed, a senior U.S. official told Reuters. She would have a direct line to the president in her new position, the source added.
Obama needs to deal with increasing criticism over the health care law before the mid-term elections, and he apparently believes a new face of Obamacare will help. While Republicans are likely to remain at the helm of the House of Representatives, Obama cannot afford to let the GOP win control also of the Senate.