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|Justin Sink||October 21st 2013|
President Obama said Monday his administration was spearheading a "tech surge" to fix the problems plaguing the online ObamaCare insurance exchanges.
"We are doing everything we can possibly do to get the websites working better, faster, sooner," the president said, adding that the White House had recruited the "best and brightest" from the private sector to help tackle the technical problems.
"No one is madder than me that the website isn't working as it should — which means it's going to get fixed," Obama declared. The president's reassurances come at a critical time for the president's signature program. Fear is growing among the administration and Democratic allies that a steady beat of stories detailing problems with the website could lead many Americans to just give up on trying to secure coverage, undermining the potential of the healthcare reform law.
Obama on Monday admitted that the website's rocky rollout "makes supporters nervous" because it provides fuel to Republican criticism that the expansive program was too unwieldy. He said there was "no sugarcoating" how bad initial impressions of the website had been, and said there was "no excuse" for the "kinks" that remained.
Facing that challenge, Obama adopted the role of pitchman, insisting that the insurance available under the program was worth fighting through a sign-up process that "hasn't worked as smoothly as it's supposed to work."
"The product, the health insurance, is good. The prices are good. It is a good deal. People don't just want it, they're showing up to buy it," Obama said.
Insisting that the Affordable Care Act was "much more" than "just a website," Obama rattled off examples of Americans saving money on insurance plans that offered greater coverage. He said the consumer protections and benefits at the core of the program were good enough that Americans should remain patient.
"The point is, the essence of the law, the health insurance that is available to people, is working just fine," Obama argued. The president also suggested that consumers eager to get covered try applying in person or over the phone, rather than through the embattled Web portal.
But that proposal, coupled with the president's admission that there remain serious problems with the website, fueled Republican cries to delay key aspects of the program.
"If the president is prepared to admit this program isn’t 'working the way it’s supposed to,' will he consider removing the tax penalty associated with the individual mandate?" asked Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "Does the president think Americans should be taxed for not buying a product from a website that doesn’t work — and may not for some time?"
Monday morning, aides to Boehner (R-Ohio) were promoting a Consumer Reports article that encouraged those running into technical problems to stay away from HealthCare.gov for another month. The New York Times ran a front-page story in which experts said as many as five million lines of code may need to be rewritten to ensure the website works properly.
Obama attempted to preemptively chastise his Republican opponents, saying it was "time for folks to stop rooting" for the failure of the program. But he also pointed to concrete changes to the Web portal designed to aid enrollments.
On Sunday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a series of new features that are designed to help users navigate the glitchy healthcare system.
The new additions to the website allow visitors to preview health plans and prices, and review their eligibility for federal subsidies. Uninsured shoppers are also prompted to apply for coverage by phone, rather than through the website.
The lingering problems are also likely to intensify pressure on HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was in attendance at the event. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) have called for her resignation over the website problems, and other Republicans have complained that Sebelius declined a request to appear at a House Energy and Commerce Committee this week.
Buck said the secretary's refusal to testify was "unacceptable." "Americans deserve real answers for this debacle," he said. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Fox News on Sunday that Sebelius would "ultimately" appear before a congressional panel.
Justin Sink writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.