WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought on Monday to limit political damage from the problematic launch of the government website for his signature healthcare law as Washington became embroiled in a new uproar days after a possible debt default was narrowly averted.
With many Americans experiencing error messages and long waits in trying to sign on to healthcare.gov, Republicans in Congress who have fought the Affordable Care Act since before its 2010 passage renewed calls for a delay in the rollout.
There was no indication from the White House that there would be any high-profile firings amid heavy Republican criticism of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Bowing to demands from Republicans, Sebelius agreed to testify October 30 at a House of Representatives oversight hearing.
Obama surrounded himself in the White House Rose Garden with a group of people who have successfully navigated the system. In a speech, Obama said: “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.”
Online insurance exchanges opened on October 1 under the law, often called “Obamacare,” to offer health insurance plans to millions of uninsured Americans. But many people have failed to make it through the system despite repeated tries.
“There’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am,” said Obama, who counts the law as his most significant domestic policy achievement.
Obama said the healthcare law was “not just a website,” a phrase repeated later by White House spokesman Jay Carney, and urged people having trouble signing up to use the telephone, offering a toll-free number - 800-318-2596 - as an alternative. He said those having problems will be contacted personally.
Less than a month ago, on September 26, Obama said it would be “real simple” to get insurance on the exchanges, comparing the process with shopping on Amazon.com.
In one of the first surveys of the public’s experience with the health care program, the Pew Research Center reported Monday that 14 percent of Americans polled from October 9-13 said they had visited an exchange website.
Of that group, 37 percent said the exchanges were working very well or fairly well, while 56 percent said they were working not too well or not at all well.
The administration has not provided data on how many people have actually managed to enroll in a health insurance plan.
Such figures may not be available until mid-November, David Simas, the White House adviser in charge of communicating the administration’s health care strategy, told CNBC.
“Americans didn’t get any answers from the president today, but the House’s oversight of this failure is just beginning,” said House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress.
The White House said last week that Obama still has “full confidence” in Sebelius, whose department is responsible for implementing the law.
For Republicans, the website’s woes offered them a new way to fight what they feel is Obama’s unwarranted expansion of the federal government. Last week, they were forced to back down from a budget fight begun by their bid to cut off funding for the healthcare law - a squabble that led to a 16-day government shutdown and a close call with a debt default.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a central player in settling last week’s fiscal impasse, said the healthcare law’s problems intensify the need to delay the requirement that every American possess health insurance by March 31 or pay a penalty fee.
“Another campaign-style event won’t solve the myriad problems facing consumers under Obamacare,” McConnell said. “Obamacare costs too much and it’s not working the way they promised. ... It’s time for the president to consider delaying this rushed effort.”
Referring to Republicans, White House spokesman Carney commented Monday that “there’s clearly some joy being taken in some quarters” with the program’s problems.
The administration said it is considering a fix for Americans signing up for insurance on the new healthcare exchanges who want to avoid paying a penalty for lacking insurance.
While the White House has assured Americans they have until March 31 to enroll, the current application process on the exchanges would require them to sign up by February 15 in order to receive health benefits in March and avoid the fine.
Carney indicated the administration might have flexibility about the penalty fees because of the site’s problems.
The Affordable Care Act is expected to provide health coverage to an estimated 7 million uninsured Americans through the new online marketplaces that opened for enrollment in all 50 states on October 1.
In the weeks since, many people have encountered a series of bewildering problems such as error messages, garbled text and delays loading pages on the website, which is the administration’s online portal for consumers in 36 states.
The administration has said that volume far exceeded expectations, placing a huge burden on the website. Private sector experts are being brought in to help, officials said.
During the White House ceremony Tuesday, a woman standing directly behind Obama appeared to faint as he was speaking. The president, among others, reached out to help her.
She later walked away on her own to applause. The White House later said the woman was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Additional reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool