It was the first question she was posed by committee chair Fred Upton (R-MI). It reappeared again and again during questioning from Republican members. They offered story after story of constituents who had received letters from their insurers, telling them that their existing coverage had been cancelled because of the health care reform law. It's always been a favorite line from the GOP, but it's been taken to a whole new level after NBC News claimed Monday that the administration knew that the president wasn't strictly correct when he made that statement.
Republicans are on safer political ground when they're arguing that Obamacare is fundamentally flawed, rather than trying to toe the rhetorical line of looking for fixes to a website at the center of a law whose existence they wish erased. The disingenuity of the latter has been fodder for Democrats during the last week of oversight hearings.
But there's nothing ideologically inconsistent for Republicans about the former. That might help explain why, in a hearing that the official GOP memo said "will focus on the failures and issues surrounding the implementation of... health insurance exchanges," Upton chose to start with an unrelated question.
"I think everyone in American remembers the president's words: 'If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.' Period," Upton said. "I would guess that there are lot of us on this panel today who are hearing from angry and confused constituents, who are now being forced to go onto an inept website, whether they like it or not, to shop for a new replacement policy."
"When was the president specifically informed of the regulation change and, if so, was it pointed out that this totally undermines his previous statement? ... Why was that change made and did the president know it?"
Sebelius, repeating the administration position that the insurers are responsible for canceling those policies, not the Affordable Care Act, then tried to explain -- in a rather wonky fashion -- why this was happening. The layman's version, as explained here and elsewhere, is this: the law allowed insurers to continue covering customers with pre-ACA plans, but they couldn't enroll any new customers into those plans and they couldn't make significant changes to them.
After a while, that stops making business sense for insures and so they've been canceling those so-called "grandfathered" plans. The coverage that would replace it, as prescribed by the law, is usually much more robust and therefore priced differently, as Sebelius and other officials have said when asked about the issue.
"Mr. Chairman, there was no change," Sebelius said. "The regulation involving grandfathered plans, which applied to both the employer market and the individual market, indicated that if a plan was in effect in March of 2010, stayed in effect without unduly burdening the consumer with reducing benefits and adding on huge costs, that plan would stay in effect and never have to comply with any regulations of the Affordable Care Act."
But that didn't placate Upton or his Republican colleagues for the remainder of the hearing.
Committee Vice Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the next Republican to get a turn with Sebelius, took up the same line of questioning a few minutes later.
"Before, during and after the law was passed, the president kept saying: 'If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,'" she said. "So is he keeping his promise?"
"Yes, he is," Sebelius said, with a terseness that surfaced time and again through the hearing. At one point, she resorted to: "Whatever. Yes, he is the president," when Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) pressed her about whether Obama was ultimately responsible for HealthCare.gov's poor launch.
But Blackburn didn't let it go. "What would you say to Mark and Lucinda in my district who have a plan, they liked it, it was affordable, but it is being terminated and now they do not have health insurance."
"Insurance companies cancel individual polices year in and year out," Sebelius said. "They're a one-year contract with individuals. They are not lifetime plans. They are not employer plans."
GOP committee members still took their shots at the website's glitches, pressing Sebelius about what the administration knew about them, and when and who specifically was responsible for making major decisions. They pulled out other familiar boogeymen like personal data being at risk on the website and the prospect of skyrocketing premiums for millions of Americans.
But over and over, they returned to the president's promise. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) referenced the Washington Post's fact-checker, which gave Obama "Four Pinocchio's" for the statement. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) did the same and then suggested to Sebelius that perhaps she should advise Obama to stop making it.
"Would you recommend to the president that he stop using that term?" Shimkus asked. "Wouldn't that be helpful in this debate?"
"I haven't read the Washington Post," Sebelius said, audibly frustrated, as Shimkus talked over her.
"Well, then we'll get you a copy," he said, before finally moving onto another issue.