“No Excuse” For Obamacare Rollout Problems

In his national television address, Obama promised that health-care enrollment would improve thanks to a round-the-clock “tech surge.” By Eleanor Clift.

“There is no sugar coating it,” President Obama said on Monday, offering a belated mea culpa about the failure of the government’s web site to properly handle almost twenty million visitors since opening for business three weeks ago. He touted what he called a “tech surge” to fix the problem with people working overtime 24/7 and experts from private tech companies stepping in to help. “The web site is too slow, people are getting stuck,” and there’s no one more frustrated than he is, he said, with his Republican critics seizing on the mishaps to decry the health care law as unworkable. “I want the cash registers to work, and the checkout lines to be smooth. …There’s no excuse for these problems.”

Introduced in the Rose Garden by Janice Baker, owner with her husband of the Heavenly Hound hotel, a grooming and boarding kennel in Selbyville, Delaware, and the first woman to enroll in the Delaware exchange, the president sought to shift focus away from web site glitches. He focused instead on the greater social good of people long since denied coverage, priced out of the market, or paying more than they should, finally gaining access to affordable policies. The good news, he kept emphasizing, is that the product is good, people want it, insurance companies want to sell it—and the sign-ups are only three weeks into a six-month open enrollment period. So there’s time to get it right.

Even so, the administration is working against the clock. If the naysayers gain the upper hand and people are discouraged from signing up for coverage, the goal might not be reached of enrolling seven million people by next March, including 1.5 to 2 million so called “young invincibles,” people under 35 whose participation is essential. Whether he likes it or not, Obama is the chief salesman. His secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, sat in the front row of an invited audience of supporters, but the rocky rollout has left her damaged goods. Obama touted enrollment the old-fashioned way—by phone, or in-person. He repeated the phone number twice (1-800-318-2596), saying “real people” are on duty to take calls 24 hours a day in 150 languages.

He said the wait times are less than one minute, though they “might go up now that I’ve read the number on national television.” People can also apply in person, he said, and promised that people who’ve been sidelined in the sign-up process will be contacted personally in the next few weeks. Obama has so much at stake in implementing his signature achievement that the next step might well be going door-to-door, which is what his campaign essentially did with its technological prowess. That gap between what Team Obama did then with his reelection at stake, and the mess Team Obama has made of the web site has even the president’s most stalwart supporters shaking their heads.

“We did not wage this long and contentious battle just to run a web site,” Obama declared, trying to elevate the fight and remind people that the ACA is upholding the principle that “health care is not a privilege for a fortunate few, it’s a right for all to enjoy…And I intend to deliver on that promise.” As the president neared the end of his remarks, a young woman beside him began to wobble, on the verge of fainting. “That’s what happens when I talk too long,” Obama said reaching for her. She was helped back into the White House and later wrote on Twitter, “I’m ok world- just got a little lightheaded.Thanks, @BarackObama for catching me! And good thing this pregnant diabetic is pregnant :)"

The White House identified her as Karmel Allison, a “prospective ACA beneficiary.” Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age nine, she has stayed on the same insurance plan despite rising costs for fear she could not get anything else because of her pre-existing condition. After researching her options on the California state exchange, the White House says she describes the experience “as finally feeling equal to others, including her young and healthy husband, when it comes to access to coverage.” With questions swirling around the web site, the White House is counting on people like Allison to steer the debate back to the law and its benefits, and away from its faulty rollout.