Contrite Obama apologizes for healthcare insurance pledge, website


(Adds additional comments from interview)

By Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (Reuters) - President Barack Obamaapologized on Thursday to Americans who are losing theirhealthcare insurance policies, saying in an interview that heregrets "we weren't as clear as we needed to be" about thereforms of his landmark healthcare restructuring.

Obama's expression of regret was aimed at placatingAmericans whose insurance plans are being canceled in spite ofhis oft-repeated pledge that if people liked their health plans,they would be able to keep them under the 2010 Affordable CareAct, also known as Obamacare.

"We weren't as clear as we needed to be, in terms of thechanges that were taking place," Obama said in an interview withNBC News.

"I am sorry that they are finding themselves in thissituation, based on assurances they got from me," he said.

The White House has been scrambling to control the damagefrom the botched Oct. 1 launch of a plan aimed at making surethat the millions without insurance could get medical coverage.

The website designed to help Americans shopfor insurance and see whether they qualify for subsidies hasmalfunctioned since its launch.

Anger has intensified as many Americans discover they standto lose policies that they assumed would be grandfathered underObamacare. Insurance companies have been dropping policiespurchased or changed since passage of the law if they do notmeet its minimum standards.

Obama has been lambasted by Republicans who oppose the lawand by his fellow Democrats who are angry at the rocky rollout.

He has made several speeches in the past month where he tookresponsibility for fixing the problems, but the NBC interviewwas the most contrite he has been.

Obama said he tried to make the law as "undisruptive aspossible" but said "we didn't do a good enough job in terms ofhow we crafted the law," and regretted it.

"I've assigned my team to see what we can do to close someof the holes and gaps in the law," Obama said.


Obama said he is looking at "a range of options" to helppeople whose insurance plans are being canceled, although hestopped short of pledging support for proposed legislation thatwould grandfather more of the policies.

Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, saidin a statement that Obama should support a Republican plan thatwould let Americans keep existing plans if they wanted.

"If the President is truly sorry for breaking his promisesto the American people, he'll do more than just issue ahalf-hearted apology on TV," McConnell said.

Many lawmakers, including some Democrats, have pressed theWhite House to extend deadlines for enrolling in insuranceplans.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator MarkKirk introduced legislation on Thursday to delay a $95 penaltyfor not signing up for insurance by a year, saying Americansshould not be penalized while Obamacare is going through its"transition period."

But Obama brushed off questions about whether he wouldsupport delays.

He said he was confident that by the end of November, website would work for the "majority of people,"and he pledged to do "whatever it takes for people to be able toget what is good-quality health insurance at cheaper prices orbetter insurance for the same price as bad insurance thatthey've got right now."


Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas and nine other Republicansenators wrote to Obama on Thursday, asking him to "immediatelyrelieve" Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebeliusfrom her post because of Obamacare's problems.

Asking in the interview whether he still had full confidencein Sebelius, Obama said the former Kansas governor "has done agreat job" in setting up the plan "under tremendously difficultcircumstances."

"Kathleen Sebelius doesn't write code," Obama said,expressing frustration with information technology (IT) problemsand procurement policies.

"She wasn't our IT person. I think she'd be the first toadmit that, if we had to do it all over again, that there wouldhave been a whole lot more questions that were asked, in termsof how this thing is working," he said.

A powerful oversight committee in the Republican-controlledU.S. House of Representatives has asked top Obama technologyofficials to testify about the website problems at a hearing onWednesday.

During the interview, Obama said he had "been burned" by thedysfunctional website, but he said he has resisted firing anyonefor the problems.

"Ultimately, the buck stops with me," he said. "You know,I'm the president. This is my team. If it's not working, it's myjob to get it fixed."

He said "bureaucratic" and "cumbersome" federal rules forhiring IT contractors often result in waste and cost overrunsand pledged to bring rules "into the 21st century" once thewebsite was fixed.

"In some ways, I should have anticipated that just becausethis was important and I was saying this was my toppriority. And I was meeting with folks once a month tellingthem, 'Make sure this works,'" he said.


On Friday, Obama will travel to the Port of New Orleans totalk about exports and jobs, and will attend Democratic partyfundraisers in Miami.

The White House will also use the trip to try to highlightthat residents of Louisiana and Florida are being hurt by thedecisions of their governors to turn down an expansion ofMedicaid, a government health insurance program for the poor andsome people with disabilities. The expansion is a key plank ofObamacare.

"In 24 states, governors and legislatures are blocking thisexpansion, which means, in clear and stark terms, that they areactively denying coverage to the 5.4 million uninsured Americanswho would otherwise gain access to coverage by 2016," WhiteHouse aide David Simas told reporters.

In Florida, there are 848,000 uninsured residents who couldgain access if Republican Governor Rick Scott agreed to expandMedicaid, Simas said. In Louisiana, such a move would benefit265,000 uninsured people, Simas said. (Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by EricWalsh, Ken Wills and Paul Simao)

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