Three weeks after the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, the Obamacare website where Americans in 36 states can shop for private insurance, President Obama on Monday acknowledged the website "is not working the way it should for everybody -- there's no sugar-coating it."
At the same time, Mr. Obama adamantly defended the Affordable Care Act, noting that the health care law is "not just a website."
"The essence of the law -- the health insurance that is available to people -- is working just fine," the president said from the White House Rose Garden, flanked by citizens who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act or are helping people to sign up for insurance through the law.
Mr. Obama stressed that the prices on the new online health insurance marketplaces, referred to as exchanges, areand the choices are greater.
"Here's the bottom line," he said. "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."
Healthcare.gov serves the 36 states that chose to let the federal government run their exchange systems. Problems with the site were apparent since the day it launched, but Mr. Obama and his administrationto higher-than-anticipated traffic. The high traffic, Mr. Obama said on Oct. 1, "gives you a sense of how important this is to millions of Americans across the country, and that's a good thing."
Since then, however, it's become clear the problems go far beyond a glut of traffic; software engineersthe website is simply poorly designed.
"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," Mr. Obama said Monday. "We've got people working overtime, 24/7, to boost capacity and address the problems."
The president promised that "some of the best I.T. talent in the entire country" is joining the administration in a "tech surge" to fix the problem, noting that experts from the private sector "have seen things like this happen before."
While the website is being repaired, Mr. Obama said the administration is also redoubling its efforts to help people buy insurance offline, either over the phone or in person.
He also made the case that purchasing insurance on one of the state-based exchanges is still easier than buying insurance on the individual market ever was before.
"Part of the challenge here is that a lot of people may not remember what it's like to buy insurance the traditional way," he said. "The way we've set it up, there are no more absurdly long application forms, there's no medical history questionnaire that goes on for pages and pages, there's no more getting denied because you've had a pre-existing condition."
In spite of the problems, the White House says that nearly 20 million people have visited Healthcare.gov since Oct. 1, andhave completed applications on the site (the first step towards enrolling in an insurance plan). However, the administration has yet to say how many people have actually enrolled in plans.
Earlier this year, Health and Human Services said it expected about 7 million people to enroll in health plans during the open enrollment period, which lasts through March. Some health policy experts and politicians have said that a sufficient number of younger, healthy people have to enroll via the exchanges in order to ensure that prices don't rise too much. However, there's concern the glitches on the site will keep away all but the sickest consumers.
While the president has vowed to get the site running smoothly, many in Washington -- including some Democrats -- havefor the botched website rollout. Last week, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called the rollout "excruciatingly embarrassing for the White House," adding, "I hope they fire some people that were in charge of making sure this thing was supposed to work."
Some Republicans are specifically calling for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to give up her job. "Absolutely she should resign," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Sunday on CNN. "Why? Because the program she implemented, Obamacare, is a disaster. It's not working. It's hurting people all across this country."
At the very least, some Republicans say, Sebelius should testify before the House Commerce Committee, which is holding an Obamacare hearing Thursday entitled, "PPACA Implementation Failures: Didn't Know or Didn't Disclose?" Sebelius was invited to testify but has declined, citing scheduling conflicts. Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said her refusal to testify was "wholly unacceptable," noting that the secretary recently defended the law on Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
"Secretary Sebelius had time for Jon Stewart, and we expect her to have time for Congress," he said.