By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - As the Obama administration scrambles to fix a balky healthcare website that has frustrated millions of Americans, one of the nation's largest unions is trying to persuade hundreds of thousands of uninsured people to begin signing up for health coverage by phone and on paper.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents about 2.1 million workers, is working in 23 communities across the United States to help its members and others sign up for insurance under the law known as "Obamacare," SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told the Reuters Summit this week.
She described a massive outreach effort that could wind up as a crucial backstop in the troubled rollout of one of the most ambitious social safety-net programs since the 1960s.
The Obama administration hopes to sign up at least 7 million Americans before a March 2014 deadline, and is counting on allies such as the SEIU for help in reaching the 25 million Americans who would qualify for benefits.
Henry said the glitches plaguing the healthcare.gov website have not been much of a factor in her union's efforts so far.
At county fairs and inner-city farmers' markets, and through door-to-door canvassing, the union has found that most of those who would benefit from the law generally are not ready to sign up because they first need to learn how it works, Henry said on Tuesday.
"The website is an issue, but in our experience it's not really the way people are choosing to enroll," Henry said.
"It's sort of like buying a car, or assessing car insurance. People check in with their family, friends or neighbors in order to navigate a system that they have no experience with," she said.
The SEIU, which represents healthcare, building-services and public-sector workers, has trained hundreds of union members to explain the law's benefits to families, friends, neighbors or people they meet at health fairs, she said.
Some 300,000 of the union's workers who currently lack insurance could benefit from the law, either through an expansion of the Medicaid program for low-income Americans or through subsidized private insurance, Henry said.
The administration set up its website to enable uninsured Americans to easily find healthcare options and prices, but the site has been plagued by technical problems since its launch on Oct. 1. The process generally has worked more smoothly in the 14 states that have set up online exchanges of their own rather than relying on the federal government's site.
'NOT THE HUGE DEBACLE'
For those who have spent their lives one costly hospital visit away from financial ruin, the law's shaky rollout has been dwarfed by the possibility of getting affordable health insurance, Henry said.
"It is not the huge debacle that you hear in Washington," she said. "People want health coverage, and they're going to figure out how to get through the obstacles to make it happen."
Insurance executives, policy specialists and former administration officials say the website's problems need to be sorted out by mid-November to ensure that large numbers of enrollees, especially young adults, can be processed by a Dec. 15 deadline for those seeking coverage starting Jan. 1.
In the meantime, the SEIU has resorted to paper forms to sign up those who are interested, or telephoning applications in to the government's call centers.
"We're running phone banks, much as we do in a political election, driving people to community centers. We're doing sort of group orientation because it's the way around the website," Henry said.
That approach could buy time for the Obama administration to fix the website, but it also could lead to complications in processing applications for coverage in the coming weeks.
Paper applications must be mailed to the government, which matches applicants with available insurance programs. The results are supposed to be mailed back about two weeks later, and at that point applicants have to pick which type of coverage they want and mail their choices back to the government.
Henry said that SEIU workers will have to ensure that applicants who they are helping take that second step of mailing in their insurance choices.
In the coming weeks, she said, the union will tout Obamacare's benefits before launching a big push to sign up people in the first part of December.
That could lead to crushing traffic at the healthcare.gov site. It's also unclear whether contractors handling paper and phone applications for the Obamacare program will be able to keep up with the volume if the website does not improve soon.
So far, most visitors to the online exchanges seem to be window shopping. About 58 percent of visitors said they just wanted to learn more about their coverage options, while 32 percent said they were looking to purchase healthcare insurance, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
The SEIU says it is talking to tens of thousands of Americans each week about the law. Union members in Illinois made 7,000 phone calls on Oct. 1 and activists in California have reached more than 100,000 households so far, SEIU officials said. Members also are knocking on about 1,800 doors a day in New York City. (Editing by David Lindsey and Will Dunham)