WASHINGTON — The battle over the government's problem-plagued health care website escalated Wednesday as Republicans attacked the Obama administration over an array of emerging issues involving the law, including potential security vulnerabilities on the site and complaints from Americans facing cancellations of existing policies.
At a congressional hearing, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the flaws of healthcare.gov, which was not functioning for most of the day. Conceding that navigating the health portal has been "a miserably frustrating experience for way too many Americans," Sebelius told lawmakers: "Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible."
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, acknowledged for the first time that some Americans will have to switch health plans under the law. But he said these people now have "cut-rate plans" from "bad-apple insurers" — a situation the health care law was designed to change. He urged consumers to "shop around" to "get a better deal" under the law.
The cancellations have become a big issue for Republicans, in part because Obama repeatedly had said that people would be able to keep their plans if they liked them.
Obama delivered his remarks Wednesday at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, where years ago his onetime Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, signed the state law that became a model for the federal health care overhaul.
During the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, which featured Sebelius as the sole witness, critical Republicans seized on evidence that the administration knew that healthcare.gov had security flaws days before it went live. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., quoted from a Sept. 27 memo to Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner from her staff that warned of "inherent security risks" stemming from inadequate testing.
"You accepted a risk on behalf of every user . . . that put their personal financial information at risk because you did not even have the most basic end-to-end test on security of this system," Rogers said.
Sebelius acknowledged that the website launched with at least one security weakness that would allow hackers to obtain personal information entered into the site. But no breach occurred, she said, and the problem has since been corrected.
"It was a theoretical problem that was immediately fixed," Sebelius said.
At a briefing later in the day, Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the agency within HHS that is charge of healthcare.gov, said the site was still undergoing security testing. But she said consumer information is safe in the meantime.
Separate security testing for the website's federal data hub, which helps determine eligibility for financial aid by verifying data with many federal agencies, has been completed and the hub has a permanent security certification, Bataille said. She could not immediately answer why one part of the system had completed security testing and another had not.
Sebelius, in her testimony, also addressed what she said was a key flaw in the health law technology: transmissions of inaccurate or incomplete enrollment data to health plans. Without accurate information, insurers will not know who has signed up for coverage and who should be billed.
"The system isn't functioning, so we're not getting that reliable data," Sebelius said when pressed to provide enrollment numbers. "We have prioritized that specific fix."
Legislators also seized on the wave of cancellation notices that have begun arriving in hundreds of thousands of mailboxes across the country.
On Wednesday, several Republican lawmakers introduced legislation they dubbed the "If You Like Your Health Care Plan You Can Keep It Act."
Members of the Energy and Commerce panel took turns telling stories about individuals from their districts who have received notices from their insurance companies stating that their plans are being canceled.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., told Sebelius that he and his family buy their health insurance on the private market and that he, like other people in his situation, got a notice saying his plan was being discontinued this year. He said he chose to reject his congressional insurance to be more like people in his district.
In Boston, Obama said he drew lessons from the Massachusetts experience, noting that there were early problems and changes that had to be made to the law. In the first month of enrollment there, Obama said, just 100 people had signed up, but by the end of that year, 36,000 state residents had purchased coverage.
"By the way," he said, "the parade of horribles, the worst predictions about health care reform in Massachusetts, never came true."
Obama shot back at his Republican critics on Capitol Hill, saying they are attacking the law instead of trying to make it work.
"It's no surprise that some of the same folks trying to scare people now are the same folks who've been trying to sink the Affordable Care Act from the beginning," Obama said.
Romney issued a statement seeking to differentiate his state law from the federal one.
Romney said the Massachusetts law was designed to fit the "unique circumstances of a single state" and that it "should not be grafted onto the entire country." Romney charged that if Obama had learned the lessons of Massachusetts, millions of Americans would not lose the insurance they were promised and the program's launch would not have been "a frustrating embarrassment."