Obama: ‘No sugar-coating’ problems with health website

Obama addresses the nation on on Oct. 21, 2013, about the technical difficulties that the website running his new health care plan has experienced since it was rolled out in early October. (Photo: CNN)

Obama addresses the nation on on Oct. 21, 2013, about the technical difficulties that the website running his new health care plan has experienced since it was rolled out in early October. (Photo: CNN)

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday turned his attention to website problems that have plagued his signature health care reforms since new exchanges for people to purchase required coverage opened three weeks ago.

Problems include people being unable to log on Healthcare.gov as well as issues once they have applied for the health insurance they must obtain by March 31 to avoid a fine.

The political showdown over government spending and raising the federal borrowing limit that ended last week distracted public attention from the problems of the new health care system, which conservatives have repeatedly tried to dismantle.

In Rose Garden remarks Monday about the Affordable Care Act, Obama reiterated that he considers the technical problems unacceptable and discussed steps his administration has taken to get them fixed.

“This hasn’t worked as smoothly as is it was supposed to work,” Obama said in a nationally-televised speech Monday morning. But he also added, “Thousands of people are signing up and saving money as we speak.”

President Barack Obama also reiterated that no one is more frustrated by the problems with Healthcare.gov than he is.

“There’s no excuse for the problems,” Obama said, going on to mention the website working too slowly and people getting stuck during the online application process. But Obama also maintained that officials were working to get it running as it should.

“We are confident that we will get all the problems fixed,” Obama said.

And though some people are having trouble applying for Obamacare on Healthcare.gov, Obama insisted that those who already have had the chance to enroll are “thrilled with the result.” He also indicated that people can apply in ways other than the website, including though a call center and in person at certain locations across the country.

Over the weekend, Obama administration officials also highlighted the fact that nearly 500,000 people have filled out applications for Obamacare, though the number who purchased coverage remains unknown.

Initial difficulties have started to ease for logging on to the website for the new exchanges, some of which are run by states and others by the federal government. Now problems are occurring further along the process, with insurance industry sources having said they are getting some applications with missing information.

Republicans on Sunday talk shows kept up their incessant attacks on the program.

“It’s been a fiasco,” GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger on “State of the Union,” while Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told CBS that “God only knows how much money they’ve spent, and it’s a failure.”

“You know, the government simply isn’t going to be able to get this job done correctly,” McConnell said.

The administration insisted it is working to fix the problems.

“I think there is no one more frustrated than the President at the difficulty in the website,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The Department of Health and Human Services “has got plans to fix this, and they have to fix this. It has to be done right.”

The application portion of the website was brought down this weekend for overnight maintenance, as it has been on previous weekends and some weeknights.

An administration official confirmed to CNN that additional government and private technology experts will be brought on to help solve the problems, but did not provide any details.

“To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering,” the Health and Human Services department said in a blog post Sunday. “Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.”

Two officials said staffing at call centers has been increased by about 50% to help people phoning in, and officials are emphasizing that now, as an alternative, one can enroll over the phone. About 1.2 million calls have been processed from those seeking information.

“The website is unacceptable, and we are improving it,” one senior administration official told CNN. “But the underlying insurance product is good, and across the country, people are getting access to affordable care on January 1.”

The administration is still not releasing the numbers on how many people have taken the next step of enrolling: choosing a specific health care plan. The administration has said it will do that only on a monthly basis, so the first tally of enrollment numbers will come in November.

The Congressional Budget Office has said it expects 7 million people to enroll by April 1.

Although the administration tally of applications did not break down how many of the applications came through state-run exchanges, a CNN survey of officials with those exchanges found that at least 257,000 people had signed up for new insurance plans as of Friday afternoon.

Not all of them had made a payment, and not every state responded to the CNN request.

While March 31 is the deadline for people to get health insurance, officials warn that failure to sign up by February 15 could be a problem because of the time needed for the coverage to take effect.

A ConsumerReports.org article last week offered tips for people trying to sign up, but had the following advice for those overwhelmed by the difficulties:

“If all this is too much for you to absorb, follow our previous advice: Stay away from Healthcare.gov for at least another month if you can. Hopefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they’ve made.”

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