Obama puts ‘no sugarcoating' on Obamacare site glitches

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Obama puts ‘no sugarcoating' on Obamacare site glitches

President Barack Obama attempted a little emergency public-relations surgery Monday on his problem-plagued signature health care overhaul, announcing that unnamed “experts” are mounting a “tech surge” to fix the Obamacare website.

“We’ve got people working overtime, 24/7, to boost capacity and address the problems,” he said in a speech in the Rose Garden. “Experts from some of America's top private-sector tech companies who've, by the way, have seen things like this happen before they want it to work.

“They're reaching out. They're offering to send help. We've had some of the best IT [information technology] talent in the entire country join the team,” the president said. “And we're well into a tech surge to fix the problem. And we are confident that we will get all the problems fixed.”

He didn’t name names (or corporations). White House press secretary Jay Carney referred reporters to the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS did not immediately respond to a request for that information, submitted via a complex form on their website.

As the president spoke, one of the hand-picked people behind him teetered and appeared to swoon, and was steadied first by someone onstage and then by Obama himself.

"You're OK. I'm right here. I got you. No, no. You're OK. This happens when I talk too long. You'll be OK," he told her.

While Obama trumpeted the “massive demand” for buying health insurance through Obamacare — citing 20 million visitors to the site since it launched Oct. 1 and the “nearly half a million” who have applied for coverage — he did not shed any light on the more important figure: How many Americans have successfully signed up for health insurance, whether via the federal website, by state-run equivalents, by phone, by fax, or by mail?

It’s not a purely academic exercise. It goes to the core of whether Obama’s fundamental overhaul of Americans' health care — one aimed at curbing soaring costs and extending coverage to tens of millions of uninsured — will work.

The Congressional Budget Office forecast that some 7 million people would sign up on health care insurance marketplaces known as “exchanges" by March 31. Millions of them must be young and healthy in order for the system’s finances to work. Conservative groups have been waging a campaign to dissuade young Americans from joining, an effort the president has denounced as “poisoning Obamacare, then trying to claim it’s sick.”

Analysts at Credit Suisse warned in a report last month, unearthed by NPR, that “the general lack of information and understanding around exchanges” as well as “the limited communication and outreach to this point” could hold back enrollment.

Now add the side effects of a glitch-prone website.

“There's no sugarcoating it: The website has been too slow; people have been getting stuck during the application process,” Obama said. “And I think it's fair to say that nobody's more frustrated by that than I am.”

"Precisely because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work, I want the checkout lines to be smooth, so I want people to be able to get this great product. And there's no excuse for the problems. And these problems are getting fixed.”

But “let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” he said.

Obama underlined alternatives to using HealthCare.gov and highlighted call centers where “you can get your questions answered by real people 24 hours a day in 150 different languages.”

“The phone number for these call centers is 1-800-318-2596,” he said. “Wait times have averaged less than one minute so far on the call centers, although I admit that the wait times probably might go up a little bit now that I've read the number out loud on national television.”

He was right. A call placed to that number moments later got an automated reply citing “extremely high call volume” and suggested making another attempt later in the day or this weekend. The call then disconnected.