President Barack Obama said Monday that there's "no excuse" for the technical problems that have plagued the rollout of the Obamacare health insurance website, and promised all Americans would have access to health coverage under his law.
"There's no sugar-coating it. The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process," Obama said from the White House's Rose Garden. "Nobody's more frustrated than I am." The president said he is "confident" that the myriad problems with the website, HealthCare.gov, will soon be fixed. The site is the access point to the health insurance exchanges the federal government is operating in more than 30 states.
Nearly three weeks into the rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy achievement, evidence is mounting that the technological difficulties stymieing enrollment into health insurance are deeper than the White House anticipated and could take weeks or longer to address.
While consumers can sign up for insurance until March 31, other pressing deadlines are nearer. People have until Dec. 15 to choose a health plan that will be in place on Jan. 1. And the new year also marks the beginning of Obamacare's individual mandate that nearly every legal U.S. resident obtain some form of health coverage or face tax penalties. A health plan must be chosen by Feb. 15 to avoid paying a portion of the penalty.
"Nobody's madder than me about the fact the website isn't working as well as it should, which means it's going to get fixed," Obama said. "Everybody who wants insurance through the marketplace will get insurance. Period."
Obama offered no details about the nature of the technical problems with HealthCare.gov, and said nothing specific about how or when his administration and the private contractors overseeing the enrollment system will repair them. Private-sector experts in information technology have joined the effort, Obama said. "We're well into a tech surge to fix the problem," he added.
The administration has not said who these experts are, how many are working on HealthCare.gov, or what they're doing to fix the problems.
Uncertainty about the health insurance exchanges, also called marketplaces, threatens the ability of millions of consumers -- including many low-income, uninsured people -- to sign up for health coverage for 2014. Health insurance companies also face the risk that most of the people who put in the effort to enroll while the sign-up process remains difficult will be those with the greatest health care needs -- who are the costliest to cover.
Republican opponents of the health care reform law, known as the Affordable Care Act, have fought the project since its conception at the beginning of Obama's presidency in 2009. Now, the tumultuous beginnings of Obamacare's first enrollment period are providing new fodder for criticism.
The government shutdown that ended last week overshadowed the failures of HealthCare.gov during its first two weeks, but scrutiny is intensifying now that that crisis is over. An oversight committee in the Republican-led House has scheduled a hearing about the website for Thursday, but Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's top health adviser, will not attend to offer testimony. Sebelius is increasingly is under fire, with several GOP lawmakers calling for her resignation.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are beginning to levy stark criticisms of their own. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called the website problems "unacceptable" during an appearance on ABC News' "This Week" Sunday.
Obama addressed supporters of his law Monday, seeking to remind them why they sought health care reform in the first place.
"But we did not wage this long and contentious battle just around a website," Obama said. "We waged this battle to make sure that millions of Americans, in the wealthiest nation on earth, finally have the same chance to get the same security of quality, affordable health care as anybody else."
Beneath the struggles consumers have faced using Health.Care.gov are potentially more consequential issues, such as health insurance companies receiving incorrect data from the government systems about their new customers.
The administration revealed Saturday that 476,000 Americans had applied for health coverage via the health insurance exchanges.
"The number of people who have visited the site is overwhelming, which is aggravating these underlying problems. Despite all that, thousands of people are signing up," Obama said Monday.
The bulk of that activity, however, is taking place in states that are operating their own health insurance exchanges, such as Kentucky, New York and Washington state. The Department of Health and Human Services won't say how many people have actually purchased health insurance via HealthCare.gov until the middle of November. States vary in how they are reporting activity on their health insurance exchanges, with some reporting the numbers of applications received and others revealing the number of individuals who have made a final choice of health coverage.
HealthCare.gov also underwent some cosmetic changes over the weekend, including a prominent button directing consumers to the telephone hotline and more direct access to average local prices for health insurance products. But visitors to the website still must create an account, verify their identities and, if applicable, apply for financial assistance in order to see the prices they actually will pay and to enroll into coverage. For now, those functions remain glitchy.
During his remarks Monday, Obama highlighted the availability of paper applications, the federal health insurance exchanges' telephone hotline and in-person help from "navigators" and others. "Don't let problems with the website deter you from signing up," he said.
These options are limited, however, in part because they still require the exchanges' information-technology infrastructure to function.