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Sebelius gets grilled by both Democratic and GOP senators

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faced a bipartisan grilling before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, as technical problems with the federal insurance exchange continue to persist.

“Right off the bat, this is unacceptable. It has been disappointing to hear members of the administration say they didn't see the problems coming,” committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), a key player in the health law’s negotiations, said as he called the hearing to order.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) said he sympathized with anxious consumers trying to apply for insurance through the federal website, even though his state has a tailor-made plan. “What can you report to us today on the progress with repairing the federal exchange? What improvements have the Americans seen with the exchange within the last month? What can we see in the next several weeks?”

In her answers, Sebelius said that the first round of enrollment numbers, to be released next week, will be “very low,” and that they will include a state-by-state breakdown with a differentiation between those consumers purchasing private coverage and enrolling in Medicaid.

Sebelius also said contractors working on the website explicitly recommended against taking the site offline until it is completely revamped.

“Delaying the Affordable Care Act wouldn't delay people's cancer or diabetes or Parkinson, didn't delay the need for mental health services or cholesterol screenings or prenatal care,” she added. “For millions of Americans, delay is not an option.”

Sebelius also received questions regarding President Obama's previous pledge that all Americans could keep their health plans if they liked them.

For his part, Carper lamented the cancellation of some plans (including likely some in Delaware), because they do not meet the new law’s standards. The Delaware senator mentioned the frustration of “a couple million people, sadly, who are not going to be able to keep the policies that they want and are facing large increases in premiums.”

Republicans on the committee were even more critical. “We know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately, lying to the American people is not,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said.

“Doesn't it knowingly violate the president and your promise that if like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan?” Sen. John Thune (R-ND) asked.

In fact, experts say that most Americans -- especially those who get their health-care coverage through their employer -- won't be affected by the new law. But the hole in Obama's past pledge is that the fraction of Americans who purchase their health insurance privately might see some change.