For the first time, someone in the Obama administration apologized for the problem-plagued Affordable Care Act website.
But Marilyn Tavenner also insisted Tuesday that the online troubles were being resolved and the overall program was working, albeit slower and less successfully than hoped.
In the first congressional testimony from a government official on the botched launch of HealthCare.gov, the head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told the House Ways and Means Committee that the "vast majority" of consumers would be able to successfully use the site by the end of November.
"I want to apologize to you that the website does not work as well as it should," she said, adding that HealthCare.gov "can and will be fixed."
The hearing served as a hot seat for Tavenner, whose agency has been blamed for the website troubles causing a political headache for President Barack Obama and his signature health care reforms, as well as a venting session for Republicans after their failed efforts to scuttle the reforms.
More trouble for Obama came out of the testimony, as Tavenner conceded that some people with individual health coverage -- rather than the group coverage that most Americans have -- will be forced to get new policies because of increased requirements under the 2010 ACA.
"These individuals in a small group, our individual markets, had no protections" before the reforms became law, Tavenner explained.
Until now, such consumers "could be kicked out any time for pre-existing conditions" or realize too late that their policies failed to cover hospitalization or cancer treatments, Tavenner said. The reforms protect them by requiring a minimum standard of coverage, she added.
For some, that means more expensive policies and any change breaks the oft-repeated pledge by Obama that "if you like your plan, you can keep your plan" when he was pushing for Congress to pass his signature reforms.
Republican Rep. Aaron Shock of Illinois hammered Tavenner on that point, noting a constituent who got a letter telling her that the health care reforms caused the cancellation of her current plan with a more expensive alternative in its place.
"She has health insurance that she likes. She's been paying her premium. She wants to keep it. But she can't," Shock said. "Isn't that a lie?"
Tavenner responded that some insurers changed or discontinued plans that failed to meet the ACA requirements, even though present coverage could still be offered in some cases under a "grandfather" provision in the legislation despite lacking the full benefits of the reforms.
She advised anyone being forced to get a new policy to examine all options under the new system, including the possibility of getting federal subsidies if they are eligible.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation website, 15.4 million people had individual health care coverage in 2011, representing about 5 percent of the population. The vast majority of Americans -- at least two-thirds of the population in 2011 -- had coverage through their employer, Medicare, Medicaid or other public providers and will not be affected by changes involving individual coverage.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said "a significant portion" of the 5 percent of people with individual coverage will end up paying less for better policies when they shop around in the new exchanges.
"One of the issues that the Affordable Care Act was designed to address was the need to provide greater security to those Americans forced to seek insurance on the individual market," Carney said.
On Capitol Hill, a top House Democrat told reporters on Tuesday that his party "should have been more precise" when making the pledge about people keeping coverage they liked.
"I think preciseness would have been better," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
He added that the promise was made to try to allay the fears of the majority of Americans who get health coverage from their employers or government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
As expected, Tuesday's hearing included fiery partisan exchanges, with Republicans saying the website problems foreshadow deeper problems that threaten higher premiums and government intrusion in future health coverage while Democrats accused them of trying to kill reforms that benefit millions of Americans.
Under relentless GOP questioning, Tavenner said initial figures on how many people have enrolled so far for health coverage under the reforms won't be available until mid-November.
She noted that the administration has expected the initial enrollment to be small, but noted that the enrollment period ends on March 31.
When asked by Republicans about the expected initial low enrollment, Tavenner pointed out that a similar dynamic occurred with implementation of the Massachusetts health care law, when people waited until the final deadline approached to sign up.