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Sebelius says 'Come back,' insists Obamacare website improved

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before a Senate Finance Committee hearing on "Health Insurance Exchange
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies before a Senate Finance Committee hearing on "Health Insurance Exchange

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday encouraged people looking to sign up for medical insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare law to return to the government's HealthCare.gov website, promising them a better experience.

"It is far faster than it was when we first opened," Sebelius said of the website. "The error rate is down to less than one percent and the volume capacity is continuing to be added to."

HealthCare.gov, a web portal offering subsidized private health coverage to uninsured Americans, has been at the center of a political firestorm over the technical problems that overwhelmed its October 1 launch and have plagued it ever since.

On a swing through Florida to encourage enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, Sebelius said: "Come back now. Don't wait until December 1."

The Obama administration has promised to fix the site by November 30 so that enough people can sign up for benefits in time for the new year.

The first enrollment deadline is December 15 for those who want insurance coverage that would begin January 1. The federal website is meant to help people in 36 states, including Florida, to verify their eligibility for subsidies and sign up.

Sebelius appeared at a media event at Florida Technical College in Orlando where "in-person assisters" were seated at small tables to help potential insurance customers enroll.

"I am confident we are on track to have a very different consumer experience. We know it is happening right now. We know every day people are successfully using HealthCare.gov," Sebelius said.

Daniel McNaughton, a college student in Orlando, appeared with her to describe his positive enrollment experience.

Some 1.6 million people in Florida are expected to qualify for government subsidies, placing it behind only Texas and California in the number of eligible people, according to the private Kaiser Family Foundation.

Sebelius urged those who know they will not qualify for a subsidy on their insurance premium to research available plans and contact their chosen insurance company directly, an option she said is working well.

Subsidies generally are available for individuals earning less than $46,000 a year and families of four earning less than $92,000.

Going online is not everyone's preferred choice, Sebelius said during a later stop in Miami at an area hospital.

"They're either not computer savvy, they're not comfortable putting information into a computer, they need some help - which is why we have a 24/7 call line available, which is why we have navigators ... dealing with people one on one. So we always knew there are alternative pathways," she said.

In Washington, Republican lawmakers held new hearings on Tuesday to highlight potential security flaws in the website. The Republicans sought to convince Americans not only that HealthCare.gov is broken but that personal data is vulnerable to theft.

(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Editing by David Adams and Will Dunham)

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