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Contrite Obama apologizes for healthcare insurance pledge, website

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Affordable Health Care to volunteers at the Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, November 6, 2013. REU
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Affordable Health Care to volunteers at the Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, November 6, 2013. REU

By Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama apologized on Thursday to Americans who are losing their healthcare insurance policies, saying in an interview that he regrets "we weren't as clear as we needed to be" about the reforms of his landmark healthcare restructuring.

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

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

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

The White House has been scrambling to control the damage from the botched October 1 launch of a plan aimed at making sure that the millions without insurance could get medical coverage.

The HealthCare.gov website designed to help Americans shop for insurance and see whether they qualify for subsidies has malfunctioned since its launch.

Anger has intensified as many Americans discover they stand to lose policies that they assumed would be grandfathered under Obamacare. Insurance companies have been dropping policies purchased or changed since passage of the law if they do not meet its minimum standards.

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

He has made several speeches in the past month where he took responsibility for fixing the problems, but the NBC interview was the most contrite he has been.

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

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

'WHATEVER IT TAKES'

Obama said he is looking at "a range of options" to help people whose insurance plans are being canceled, although he stopped short of pledging support for proposed legislation that would grandfather more of the policies.

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

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

Many lawmakers, including some Democrats, have pressed the White House to extend deadlines for enrolling in insurance plans.

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

But Obama brushed off questions about whether he would support delays.

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

'BURNED' BY HEALTHCARE.GOV

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas and nine other Republican senators wrote to Obama on Thursday, asking him to "immediately relieve" Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from her post because of Obamacare's problems.

Asking in the interview whether he still had full confidence in Sebelius, Obama said the former Kansas governor "has done a great job" in setting up the plan "under tremendously difficult circumstances."

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

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

A powerful oversight committee in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has asked top Obama technology officials to testify about the website problems at a hearing on Wednesday.

During the interview, Obama said he had "been burned" by the dysfunctional website, but he said he has resisted firing anyone for 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 my job to get it fixed."

He said "bureaucratic" and "cumbersome" federal rules for hiring IT contractors often result in waste and cost overruns and pledged to bring rules "into the 21st century" once the website was fixed.

"In some ways, I should have anticipated that just because this was important and I was saying this was my top priority. And I was meeting with folks once a month telling them, 'Make sure this works,'" he said.

FRIDAY: THE ECONOMY

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

The White House will also use the trip to try to highlight that residents of Louisiana and Florida are being hurt by the decisions of their governors to turn down an expansion of Medicaid, a government health insurance program for the poor and some people with disabilities. The expansion is a key plank of Obamacare.

"In 24 states, governors and legislatures are blocking this expansion, which means, in clear and stark terms, that they are actively denying coverage to the 5.4 million uninsured Americans who would otherwise gain access to coverage by 2016," White House aide David Simas told reporters.

In Florida, there are 848,000 uninsured residents who could gain access if Republican Governor Rick Scott agreed to expand Medicaid, Simas said. In Louisiana, such a move would benefit 265,000 uninsured people, Simas said.

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Eric Walsh, Ken Wills and Paul Simao)

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