MEMPHIS — Misinformation about the Affordable Care Act is contributing to some Americans' uneasiness about the law and their lack of understanding about how it affects their families, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday.
Sebelius, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. visited the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Friday for an education and outreach session about the health care marketplace with Memphis residents.
Sebelius met with local Affordable Care Act enrollment partners before addressing an audience of more than 100 people who wanted to sign up. Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd, Sebelius said she is sorry that people who have waited a long time for the health insurance website are frustrated with it.
Problems with the website have also led to sharp criticism from members of Congress. At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Sebelius also apologized, and said she is accountable for the failures, but defended the health care overhaul.
A question from reporters afterward dealt with a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll that says the number of people who say they understand how the law affects their own family is up 8 points to 55 percent. However, the percentage of people who have a generally unfavorable opinion of the law remained virtually unchanged at 44 percent, indicating that people don't seem to like the law any better, even as they learn more about it.
"There is no question there is still an extraordinary amount of misinformation," she said. "If 55 percent of the people understand a little more about how it affects them and their families, that means that 45 percent of the people still don't have any idea, and may have believed that there is anything from death panels for Medicare constituents or something will happen to their health benefits or any number of things that continue to be said over and over again."
Wharton, a Democrat, said local leaders are responsible for teaching their constituents about the law.
"We've got to do more educating at the local level before we get to the point where we can have people exercise their options," Wharton said. "I think that's one of the things that we have overlooked at the local level. I jumped out and started talking about options, but the folks to whom I was speaking were way somewhere else."
Even before her appearance at the library, Sebelius was the target of criticism by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican who has called on President Barack Obama to ask her to resign. Alexander has introduced legislation that would require the administration to provide weekly reports on the health care exchanges.
"The secretary is always welcome in Tennessee, but her time would be better spent in Washington fixing the Obamacare website so that millions of Americans won't find themselves without health insurance starting January 1st," Alexander said in a news release distributed Thursday.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney also leveled barbs at Sebelius and Obama about the Memphis visit.
"The whole thing looks like a snake oil medicine show being orchestrated from the White House," Devaney said in a news release.
Sebelius said she has spoken directly with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam three or four times about Medicaid expansion in the state. Haslam said Wednesday it is unlikely the state will hammer out a deal with the federal government on expansion before the new year.
The Republican governor said negotiations have been hampered by problems with the online insurance marketplace, which serves 36 states including Tennessee.
"We would love to work with Tennessee around Medicaid expansion," Sebelius said, adding later that "there will be a lot of folks here in Tennessee who will not have access to affordable coverage without Medicaid expansion."