Obama to cite Mass. health care law's slow start

Associated Press
President Barack Obama is greeted by well-wishers as he arrives at Boston Logan Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, before going to Faneuil Hall to speak about the federal health care law. Faneuil Hall is where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama's rival in the 2012 presidential election, signed the state's landmark health care law in 2006, with top Democrats standing by his side. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
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President Barack Obama is greeted by well-wishers as he arrives at Boston Logan Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, before going to Faneuil Hall to speak about the federal health care law. Faneuil Hall is where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama's rival in the 2012 presidential election, signed the state's landmark health care law in 2006, with top Democrats standing by his side. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

BOSTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is citing the Massachusetts health care system's slow start to keep expectations low for early sign-ups for his own overhaul. And he's pointing to the bipartisan effort to get the program launched in Massachusetts to encourage his opponents to stop rooting for his law's failure.

The president planned to speak about the embattled law Wednesday from Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, where Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney was joined by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy to sign the state's 2006 health care overhaul bill.

There's been no such bipartisanship surrounding Obama's effort, particularly this month as the marketplace to allow individuals to buy health insurance went online with myriad technical problems. Republicans say the dysfunction is more reason to repeal the law, and they're pressing Obama administration officials for an explanation.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was testifying Wednesday before a Republican-led House committee, a day after Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner was questioned by lawmakers about the problems.

Tavenner apologized for the website woes, but stressed it was improving daily. She repeatedly declined to say how many people have been able to sign up despite problems accessing Healthcare.gov, saying the figures would be released in mid-November.

An internal memo obtained by The Associated Press shows that the administration had expected nearly 500,000 uninsured people to sign up for coverage in October, the program's first month. But Tavenner forecast less impressive figures. "We expect the initial numbers to be small," she said.

The White House said Obama planned to point out Massachusetts' sluggish start Wednesday. Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor who advised both Romney and Obama on the development of their laws, said only 123 paying consumers signed up the first month of the Massachusetts law, with 36,000 coming on by the time penalties kicked in for failing to have insurance.

"That same kind of outcome will happen at the national level, but it will take time," Gruber said in a media call previewing the trip organized by the White House. "We need to be patient and measure the outcomes in months and years, not days and weeks."

While more people did sign up as the deadline approached in Massachusetts, its law never faced high-profile computer woes or such fierce opposition. Even though the federal law was modeled on Romney's, the former governor ran against Obama last year on a campaign to repeal the federal version.

In a statement Wednesday, Romney said he believes "a plan crafted to fit the unique circumstances of a single state should not be grafted onto the entire country."

Obama, who lived in Boston while a student at Harvard University, was in town for a World Series game day, but his spokesman said he didn't plan to make a side trip to Fenway Park. Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was mindful of the impact his security entourage has on the public and never considered attending.

But sports still figured into his itinerary. The White House said Obama was to get a private, advance view of a statue honoring Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell. The statue was scheduled to be unveiled in Boston's City Hall Plaza on Friday. Russell, who played for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969, was to join Obama.

While in Boston, Obama also planned to speak at a fundraiser for House Democrats at the home of his former ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont. About 60 people paid $16,200 to $64,800 to dine on Spanish-influenced fare, to be followed by Red Sox cookies in honor of the World Series game being played in town the same night.

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Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.

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Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler

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