Obama says ‘no excuse’ for website foul-ups, vows to fix them

Anita Kumar,Tony PughMcClatchy Washington Bureau

President Barack Obama said Monday that he was angry and frustrated with the failures of the federal government’s new health care website and he vowed to solve them as soon as possible.

Obama said a team of America’s top private-sector tech experts was working around the clock to fix healthcare.gov, though he and his staff declined to name the companies that are involved or to provide a deadline.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” the president said at a Rose Garden event with supporters of the health care overhaul. “It’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am. . . . There’s no excuse for the problems, and these problems are getting fixed.”

Obama, in his first extensive remarks since the botched Oct. 1 rollout of the insurance marketplace, said the law that aims to provide more comprehensive, affordable health coverage remained a success and that any problems stemmed from interest that exceeded expectations. Nearly 20 million people have visited the website, and more than half a million have successfully submitted applications.

“The product is good,” the president said. “The health insurance that’s being provided is good. It’s high quality and it’s affordable.”

The federal marketplace was supposed to provide a one-stop site for users in 36 states to browse, compare and enroll in qualified health plans. But numerous software problems overwhelmed the site shortly after the enrollment period for 2014 coverage began. Some improvements have been made, but delays and malfunctions continue.

A new Washington Post-ABC poll released Monday found that 56 percent of Americans say the website problems are part of a broader problem with the law’s implementation, while just 40 percent see them as an isolated incident. Recent polls generally find that more people oppose the law than support it.

Consumers have until March 31 to sign up for coverage. The administration doesn’t expect to extend the deadline, but it appeared to open the door Monday to the possibility that those who were trying to purchase insurance and had problems with the website might be exempted from the law’s penalty for remaining uninsured.

Under current rules, people who buy marketplace coverage after Feb. 15 could be subject to fines under the individual mandate – which requires most Americans to have insurance or pay a penalty – because their enrollment may not begin in time to meet the deadline. The administration is considering new rules that would allow marketplace coverage purchased after Feb. 15 to be eligible under the mandate.

“The law is clear that if you do not have access to affordable health insurance, you will not be forced to pay a penalty,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Republicans’ insistence that the health care makeover be delayed or defunded led to the partial shutdown of the federal government, but the bill that reopened the government last week after 16 days included no substantive changes to the program.

“The taxpayers have already shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars to build the original website,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said after Obama spoke. “How much more money is President Obama going to demand?”

The president’s Rose Garden appearance seemed at times like a campaign rally. More than 100 supporters were seated in the audience, applauding regularly as he spent the bulk of his 25-minute speech touting some of the benefits of the law: free preventative care, cheaper medicine for seniors and insurance for those who have pre-existing medical conditions.

“Let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” he said. “It’s much more.”

Republicans criticized the White House event.

“If the president is frustrated by the mounting failures of his health care law, it wasn’t apparent today,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Americans are looking for accountability, but what the president offered today was little more than self-congratulation.”

Obama was introduced by Janice Baker, the first person to sign up for insurance through the marketplaces in Delaware. Even she had had problems.

“Like many consumers out there, it took me a number of frustrating attempts before I could apply for and select my plan,” she said. “I kept trying because I needed access to the new health care options.”

Over the weekend, the administration updated the website to make it more user-friendly. Instead of the homepage greeting of “apply now,” it gives users links to “apply online” or “apply by phone” at 800-318-2596. Wait times are averaging less than a minute, Obama said, and individuals can fully enroll by phone in about 25 minutes, or families in 45 minutes.

After numerous complaints, the homepage now allows users to compare the costs of health plans in their areas without opening individual accounts. The administration was reluctant to allow this when the website launched because the plan prices don’t reflect what people would pay after federal subsidies are included for people with low- and moderate incomes. The page now says, “See plans and prices in your area.”

In addition, the new design alerts viewers, “IMPORTANT NOTE: The prices shown on this tool don’t reflect the lower costs you may qualify for based on household size and income.”

Christopher Rasmussen, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, said allowing people to compare plans without providing personal information should make the site easier to navigate.

“Putting that requirement at the back end relieves that front-door logjam, so I think that’s a good move on their part,” he said.

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee had wanted Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to testify Thursday about the rollout, but she declined because she’ll be out of the state. She’s expected to testify next week.

By Anita Kumar and Tony Pugh
McClatchy Washington Bureau