The grilling of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over the problems with the Obamacare rollout quickly shifted Wednesday, from the website "debacle" to the underlying law — and the people who are losing insurance plans they like.
While Republicans extracted what amounted to a mea culpa and an apology for the website from Sebelius early on during the hearing, Sebelius defended President Barack Obama's often used line that "if you like your health insurance, you can keep it" as true, even though millions of people are being sent letters across the country saying their plans are going away.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., began the hearing with a question about the oft-repeated line, asking when the president knew that rhetoric was not true.
"Why was that change made, and did the president know it?" Upton asked Sebelius.
But Sebelius insisted that, "Mr. Chairman, there was no change."
Upton insisted that "folks who did have a plan who liked it, in fact, are being told that it's canceled," but Sebelius repeatedly maintained, as many Republicans asked similar questions, that Americans could keep their plans — provided, of course, that the insurance companies kept offering them.
For Rep. Marsha Blackburn, taking the decision-making out of the hands of Americans was unacceptable.
"I will remind you: some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup and not a crystal stem. You're taking away their choice," the Tennessee Republican said.
Sebelius and Democrats countered with the law's benefits — no more denial of coverage pre-existing conditions, no lifetime caps, no discrimination on rates for women, and a basic level of benefits for everyone. Sebelius said the existing health insurance market effectively wasn't working and wasn't regulated.
Other Republicans insisted that minimum standards of health insurance had nothing to do with plans being canceled. They said plenty of Americans who have been privately buying health insurance, who had health insurance that exceeded the minimum standards, are having their plans canceled and facing significantly higher costs.
Rep. Steve Scalise pressed Sebelius on a particular case of one of his constituents, "Shawn," who had his plan, which he liked, canceled. Scalise asked Sebelius what she would say to Shawn.
"I would tell Shawn to shop in the marketplace," Sebelius told the Louisiana Republican.
"I think you deserve to give Shawn a better answer," Scalise said.
Democrats, for their part, marveled that Republicans were making the hearing about the HealthCare.gov rollout into a hearing about Obamacare.
After Upton's time ran out while he was only able to question Sebelius on the president's sales pitch, ranking Democrat Henry A. Waxman of California characterized the hearing as an Obamacare witch-hunt.
"I have to smile at your line of questioning because everybody expected this hearing was about the website. That's all we've been hearing about is the website. But that's not the only complaint we've been hearing about since the Affordable Care Act was adopted," Waxman said.