An unscripted moment Monday summed up President Barack Obama’s effort to downplay problems plaguing the government website used to sign up for required health insurance under his signature health care reforms.
As Obama argued that the law was good and the website’s problems would be fixed, one of the people chosen to stand behind him in the White House Rose Garden started to teeter.
Others supported the woman, Karmel Allison of San Diego, who appeared on the verge of passing out, and Obama quickly turned to help.
“I got you. You’re OK,” he said, reaching out to Allison. He then joked, “This happens when I talk too long.”
In the same assured and upbeat manner, Obama also attempted to discuss the myriad problems of HealthCare.gov, the website for the 15% of Americans lacking health coverage to sign up for insurance.
Saying there was no “sugarcoating” the login difficulties, long waits, repeated failures and other problems, the President added that tech industry experts were being brought in to help workers going 24/7 to resolve the website woes.
“Nobody’s madder than me about the website not working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed,” Obama said without specifying exactly what went wrong or who was to blame.
At the same time, he argued that the health insurance available through the 2010 Affordable Care Act provided Americans previously unable to get coverage with the security of knowing that an accident or illness wouldn’t bankrupt them.
Though some people are having trouble applying, those who have had the chance to enroll through HealthCare.gov are “thrilled with the result,” and people can apply in ways other than the website, including though a call center and in person, Obama said.
He noted that new marketplaces under the law opened October 1, the same day House Republicans forced a government shutdown by trying to link continued funding to their demands to dismantle or defund the health care reforms.
“It’s time for folks to stop rooting for its failure, because hardworking middle class families are rooting for its success,” Obama said of the health care law.
The political showdown over government spending and raising the federal borrowing limit, which ended last week, distracted public attention from the problems of the new health care system.
Obama administration officials have 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.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday showed that 56% of respondents consider the website difficulties a harbinger of broader problems with the Affordable Care Act, a constant target of conservative critics who consider it the epitome of big government overreach.
Republicans kept up their attacks on the health care reforms Monday, with the office of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell tweeting that when a visit to the Obamacare website made a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles seem pleasant, “it’s time for the President to consider delaying this rushed effort.”
“God only knows how much money they’ve spent, and it’s a failure,” McConnell said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “You know, the government simply isn’t going to be able to get this job done correctly.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney reiterated Obama’s point that the problems have occurred in the first three weeks of a six-month open enrollment period, and more time was needed to get the system running properly.
Although March 31 is the deadline for people to get health insurance or face a fine, 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.
Carney hinted that lingering problems in signing people up could result in relief, noting that the law makes clear that “if you do not have access to affordable health insurance, you will not have to pay a penalty for not having affordable health insurance.”
He also repeated the President’s assertion that high demand in the first weeks of the new exchanges contributed to the website problems, noting that the larger-than-expected response exposed existing “glitches and kinks.”
“We need to step up our game to ensure that demand is met,” Carney said in reference to the Department of Health and Human Services contracting with outside experts to help solve the problems.
The Republican National Committee challenged the government “tech surge,” saying in a statement that it was “code for ‘spending surge,’ and will waste hundreds of millions of unbudgeted taxpayer dollars.”
Republicans have increasingly called for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to lose her job because of the website problems.
Sebelius attended Monday’s Rose Garden remarks, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced that she was expected to testify at an October 30 hearing on the cause of the problems.
The panel also said it will hold a hearing on Thursday, with contractors CGI, Serco and Equifax set to testify on their roles in the situation. Sebelius was invited to this week’s hearing but had a scheduling conflict, her office said.
Obama rejected the GOP attack line, saying the benefits of the health care reforms — particularly for people previously unable to get health coverage or afford high-cost policies — were too important to halt progress because of temporary problems such as website difficulties.
“The essence of the law, the health insurance that’s available to people, is working just fine,” he said. “In some cases, actually, it’s exceeding expectations. The prices are lower than expected, and the choice is greater than we expected. But the problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody. There’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People are getting stuck during the application process.”
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 that 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 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.
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.”
CNN’s Paul Steinhauser, Kevin Bohn, Jim Acosta, Adam Aigner-Treworgy, Brian Todd and Dugald McConnell contributed to this report.
Tom Cohen | CNN