World and Nation

Contrite White House spurns health law’s critics

BOSTON — The White House on Wednesday blended expressions of contrition for the troubled rollout of its health care law with an aggressive rejection of Republican criticism of it, as the administration sought a political strategy to blunt the fallout from weeks of technical failures and negative coverage.

While Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, apologized profusely during a politically charged hearing on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama traveled to Massachusetts to argue forcefully that the Affordable Care Act will eventually be just as successful as the similar plan pioneered by Mitt Romney, his onetime rival and a former governor of the state.

The president also took “full responsibility” for the malfunctioning health care website and promised to fix it. But he pledged to “grind it out” over the weeks and months ahead to ensure the law’s success and prove its Republican critics wrong.

“We are going to see this through,” Obama vowed, pounding his fist on the lectern as the audience roared with approval.

The dual messages from Obama and Sebelius over the course of the day reflect a recognition by officials inside the White House that while apologies are in order, the administration cannot let Republicans expand concerns about the website into a broader indictment of the law. Senior advisers to the president said they understood that the bungled rollout of the insurance marketplace has given Republicans another opportunity to litigate the political case against the health care law. But they said they viewed the weeks ahead as a period of inevitable improvement that will vindicate their position.

With Republicans showing no sign of backing off, the challenge for Obama and Democrats in the months ahead will be to deflect political attacks that unfairly demonize the health care law while acknowledging its shortcomings. Achieving that nuance could prove tricky for an administration whose top health official, Sebelius, on Wednesday called the rollout of the online insurance marketplace a “debacle.”

Sebelius told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce committee that she was as surprised as anyone when the website collapsed Oct. 1.

The shift in strategy from the White House comes as new challenges emerge for the law. The problem-plagued website crashed again just before Sebelius began testifying. And officials acknowledged that the federal insurance marketplace for small businesses, which had already been delayed a month from Oct. 1, will not open until the end of November.