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Obama criticizes rollout of HealthCare.gov, but urges patience


By Joseph Conn
Posted: October 21, 2013 - 1:45 pm ET
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President Barack Obama, speaking today to a nationally televised audience, sharply criticized his administration's development efforts on HealthCare.gov, the troubled Web portal that has caused millions of Americans huge headaches as they seek to obtain health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But he did not fire any officials responsible for the launch, despite calls from critics including his former press secretary to do so.

The terrible rollout of the federal marketplace serving 36 states has even Obama administration allies worried about the success of the president's signature domestic policy initiative. The New York Times reported today that it may take weeks of work to fix the problems with the online enrollment process through HealthCare.gov website.

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“There is no sugar coating it,” said Obama, speaking from the White House steps and surrounded by people who either have applied for coverage or are trained “navigators” who guide new applicants. “The website is too slow and people are getting stuck. And I think it's fair to say, nobody is more frustrated about that than I am. Nobody's madder than me about the web site not working as it should, which means, it's going to get fixed.”

“We are doing everything we can possibly do” to get the federal enrollment site working better, faster, sooner, he said. Experts from some of America's top private-sector tech companies are offering to help, he said.

For those who've already tried to apply through the website and gotten stuck, Obama said, “Don't worry. In a couple of weeks, we'll contact you directly” to ensure anyone wishing to enroll will be able to do so.

Meanwhile, Obama touted other means to enroll, including “the old-fashioned way, offline, either over the phone or in person,” he said.

The glitch-plagued HealthCare.gov website was updated Sunday with information on where people can enroll, how to talk to a specialist that will help them apply over the phone, or obtain a downloadable application they can print out, according to the president.

The call centers—which can be reached by dialing 1-800-318-2596—have been up and running since the Oct. 1 launch of the federal enrollment effort.

Call center wait times have averaged less than one minute, although wait times are likely go up after his mentioning the phone number on national television, Obama said. “You can talk to someone directly and they can walk you through the application period.” Once on the phone with a trained representative, it usually takes about 25 minutes for an individual and about 45 minutes for a family to apply, he said.

“You can also apply in person with the help of a local navigator,” Obama said. “They exist all across the country.” A separate website has been set up to help applicants find a local navigator, he said.

Despite the glitches, HealthCare.gov has been visited more than 20 million times, and some people have managed to get all the way through and enroll, Obama said. “More than half a million consumers across the country have successfully submitted applications” using both the federal and state-run enrollment websites, he said.

John Kelly, principal business adviser at Edifecs, Bellevue, Wash., said the insurers his company serves now are receiving thousands of electronic insurance applications a week from the federal exchange, indicating that consumers are now having more success enrolling.

Some states running their own exchanges have had better success launching their websites than the feds, in part because the state sites, while similarly deluged at the start, reached more manageable volume levels more quickly than has the federal site, and also in part because several states chose different “batting orders” for their functions, placing pre-enrollment and insurance plan shopping functions before those for connecting an applicant to the federal identity proofing and income verification portions of the enrollment system.

Federal applicants go to the high-security site first. The feds have since added plan shopping and subsidy eligibility calculation functions on the side, but the actual application process still begins with the high security requirement to open an online “account” that requires the provision of personally identifiable information such as name, date of birth and Social Security number.

Obama was flanked by 13 people who were identified as people who have successful enrolled. The president was introduced by Janice Baker, a small business owner from Delaware, the first person in that state to be signed up for health insurance through the new online marketplace. Delaware is a so-called “partnership” state in which the exchange functions are jointly run by the federal government and the state.

“Like many consumers out there, it took me a number of frustrating attempts,” Baker said. But having been rejected previously by three insurance plans for a pre-existing condition, Baker said she persevered and was “thrilled” to finally obtain coverage through the exchange at an affordable price.

“Have patience with such a new system,” she said. A single hospital stay, Baker said, “would have bankrupted me and my small business.”

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has received criticism for the bungled exchange rollout, attended the Rose Garden news conference, but was not at the dais. Instead, she was seated in the front row of an audience of about 100 people.

Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn


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