Bloomberg News

Obama Says Health Care Law More Important Than Website

October 21, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Affordable Care Act alongside healthcare professionals and people affected by the new legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 2013. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama said flaws in the government’s online insurance exchanges don’t indicate a broader failure of the program, as his spokesman suggested the administration is considering adjusting deadlines under the law.

Obama said the website that is central to getting as many as 7 million uninsured Americans covered under the 2010 health-care law hasn’t met expectations.

“Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed,” Obama said today at a White House Rose Garden event intended to emphasize the benefits for the uninsured, businesses and health-care providers under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

White House press secretary Jay Carney, at a briefing afterward, indicated the White House may be considering some modifications to penalties people would otherwise face for failing to meet the law’s deadlines for carrying health insurance.

Obama’s remarks were the first time he addressed the law at length since last week’s end of a 16-day partial government shutdown that was triggered by a standoff over demands by some Republicans that the law be stripped of funding or delayed. The fiscal stalemate overshadowed the technical flaws that have plagued the healthcare.gov website since it went live Oct. 1.

Expecting Attacks

Obama said he expected congressional Republicans to use the slow rollout of exchanges to renew their attacks on the act. He said the issues are larger than the online signups, citing mandates in the law that benefit those who already have insurance, such as preventative-care coverage, and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26.

“The essence of the law, the health insurance that’s available to people, is working just fine,” Obama said. “We did not wage this long and contentious battle just around a website.”

Obama said everyone who seeks insurance through the exchanges will be able to get coverage and that enrollment by telephone or paper application is available.

House Speaker John Boehner said Obama is offering excuses instead of explanations.

Health Exchanges in a Nutshell

“Either the president doesn’t grasp the scale of the law’s failures or he doesn’t believe Americans deserve straight answers,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said he will file legislation next week that would delay the individual mandate until six months after the signup website is certified as fully functional by the Government Accountability Office.

Law’s Deadlines

Carney opened the door for adjusting deadlines for those who are unable to get coverage because of signup delays.

“The law is clear that if you do not have access to affordable health insurance, then you will not be asked to pay a penalty because you haven’t purchased affordable health insurance,” Carney told reporters at the briefing.

While enrollment for health plans under the law known as Obamacare continues until March 31, the cutoff to avoid the government’s tax penalty for not carrying coverage is Feb. 15 -- the last day someone can enroll to have coverage effective the beginning of March.

“There’s a disconnect between the two deadlines in the first year only,” Carney said. The Department of Health and Human Services will be issuing guidelines “soon,” he said.

Aligning the law’s deadlines for signing up and avoiding the penalty could reduce confusion and avoid punishing people who encounter difficulties with the website.

Sebelius Targeted

The hobbled rollout has made Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius a target of the law’s critics. Republican Senator Pat Roberts, from Sebelius’s home state of Kansas, has called for her resignation.

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said in an e-mailed statement, “Somebody ought to be accountable for this mess, and if the president isn’t going to resign, it’s up to him to figure out who should.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a hearing Oct. 24 on the implementation problems. Sebelius has declined to testify, citing schedule conflicts, which Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said was “wholly unacceptable.”

Testimony Promised

HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said Sebelius and other department officials plan to testify before Congress as early as next week.

“We have always indicated to the committee that she intended to testify but that she had a scheduling conflict,” Peters said in an e-mailed statement. “We continue to work with them to find a mutually agreeable date in the near future.”

More than half of Americans view the website trouble as a symptom of broader issues with the law, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. Still, two-thirds either support the law or are willing to let it go forward to see how it works, according to the survey conducted Oct. 17-20.

The public is roughly split on the law, with 49 percent opposed to the law and 46 percent supporting it. ABC said that a fifth of those who say they are against the law oppose it because the act didn’t go far enough to change the U.S. health-care system.

The telephone poll of 1,002 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, according to ABC.

Technical Experts

The department said yesterday it’s asking a group of the “best and brightest” technical experts from inside and outside the government to bring the site up to speed. A blog post yesterday on the HHS website promised a “tech surge” to fix the online portal.

The government also asked the site’s main contractor, a unit of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc. (GIB/A), to add staff and assign its “A-Team” to the efforts, Jason Young, an HHS spokesman, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

New features were added to the website late yesterday in an effort to address some of the shortcomings. A prominent “apply by phone” button was added to draw volume from the site while it’s repaired and make it easier for people to shop for health plans without first identifying themselves. A “see plans now” button allows anonymous shopping after customers answer a few questions about where they live and their family size.

About 8.6 million people visited the federal website in the first week, running into software flaws and long waits that prevented many from registering to check out insurance options. At one point, the site posted error messages in at least 24 states. Independent, state-run exchange websites have seen far fewer waits and flaws.

The administration has said it will release enrollment figures from the federal healthcare.gov website monthly, starting in mid-November. The six-month period for signing up for insurance coverage ends March 31.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net; Alex Wayne in Washington at awayne3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net


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