J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Published Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 | 7:45 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 | 8:25 a.m.
WASHINGTON — A senior government official declined to say Tuesday if the administration will support legislation to fulfill President Barack Obama's oft-stated promise that anyone who likes their health care plan will be able to keep it under the nation's new law.
Appearing before a Senate committee, Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, also said the government's health care web site has improved since its widely panned launch a month ago, and is still improving.
"Users can now successfully create an account and continue through the full application and enrollment process," she said. We are now able to process nearly 17,000 registrants per hour, or 5 per second, with almost no errors."
Republicans on the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee emphasized their longstanding criticism of the law, citing examples of cancellations and increased costs while raising questions about cyber-security for healthcare.gov.
One, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, asked if the administration would support legislation introduced in the Senate to allow individuals to retain their existing coverage if they want to. He recalled Obama's pledge to that effect, first made in 2009.
In response, Tavenner said she hadn't read the legislation, and took no position on it.
Similarly, White House officials declined comment on Tuesday on similar bills introduced in both houses by other lawmakers.
Committee Democrats were generally less pointed, although Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland cited consumer confusion.
"I think it's very confusing about where you go," she said. "I can tell you, people really don't know, they really, really don't know."
Tavenner, who last week apologized to the public for the poor quality of the website in its earliest days, invited the public to go online for themselves to see how it was now functioning.
"We are seeing improvements each week, and by the end of November, the experience on the site will be smooth for the vast majority of users," she said.
Tavenner said the site would be "fully functioning" by the end of the month.
She appeared at a time when Democrats remain uneasy about the implementation of a program they created over unanimous Republican opposition in 2010.
The website went down again in the middle of the day Monday for about 90 minutes. And the administration still refuses to divulge enrollment statistics until mid-November.
Tavenner began her career as a nurse and built a successful record as a hospital executive before entering public service. Seen as a businesslike manager, she has enjoyed support from lawmakers across the political spectrum.
HealthCare.gov was supposed to provide one-stop shopping for people who don't have a health plan on the job. Its target audience is not only uninsured Americans but those who already purchase coverage individually. Middle-class people can sign up for private coverage made more affordable by tax credits that act like a discount on premiums. Lower-income people will be steered to an expanded version of Medicaid in states that agreed to expand that safety net program.
A new study released Tuesday estimates the potential size of the market nationally at 28.6 million people. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation says three out of five, or more than 17 million people, will be eligible for tax credits. That includes both uninsured people and those switching over from current individual plans. Texas, California and Florida have the highest numbers of residents eligible for the credits.
Earlier, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 7 million uninsured people would gain coverage through the marketplaces, a statistic the Obama administration adopted as its own enrollment target.