Obama admits flaws on health website

Defends his program but provides little insight to problems

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama offered an impassioned defense Monday of the Affordable Care Act, acknowledging the technical failures of the HealthCare.gov website, but providing little new information about the problems with the online portal or the efforts by government contractors to fix it.

With Republican critics seizing on the website's issues as evidence of deeper flaws in the health care law, Mr. Obama sought to deflect attention from the continuing problems by focusing on ways to get coverage without going online. Like a TV pitchman, the president urged viewers to call the government's toll-free number for health insurance, acknowledging that "the wait times probably might go up a little bit now."

In remarks in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama acknowledged serious technical issues with the website, declaring that "no one is madder than me." He offered no new information about how many people have managed to enroll since the online exchanges opened Oct. 1. Nor did he address questions about who, if anyone, might be held responsible for the failure.

The president and his top aides played down the importance of the online marketplace that his administration once heralded as the key to the law's success. Mr. Obama promised that officials are working to fix the website but said Republican critics should "stop rooting" for the failure of a law that provides health insurance to people who do not have it.

"We did not wage this long and contentious battle just around a website," Mr. Obama told supporters. "That's not what this was about. We waged this battle to make sure that millions of Americans in the wealthiest nation on earth finally have the same chance to get the same security of affordable, quality health care as anybody else."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement after the president's event that the administration is "not prepared to be straight" with the American people about the issues involving the health care website and the insurance program behind it. "Every day, new questions about the president's health care law arise, but candid explanations are nowhere to be found," Mr. Boehner said. "This decision continues a troubling pattern of this administration seeking to avoid accountability and stonewall the public."

As they have pushed to repeal or defund Mr. Obama's signature health care law, Republicans have demanded that the administration provide data to show how many -- or how few -- people have enrolled in health insurance plans through the online portal. On Monday, White House officials again refused, saying they plan to offer such numbers in mid-November and monthly after that.

The White House refusal to provide enrollment data stands in contrast to the administration's insistence that states submit detailed weekly reports on the number and characteristics of people who sign up for insurance through state-run exchanges. The Department of Health and Human Services said it needed the data so it could "track those measures which have the most potential to adversely impact beneficiaries related to their ability to enroll in insurance plans."

The department said it wanted to shine a spotlight on the performance of state exchanges, which were built with the help of federal money, and it emphasized the importance of "transparency in the performance of marketplaces." Moreover, the administration said frequent reporting of performance data was needed so federal officials could spot problems with the state exchanges and step in to help fix them. In fact, the state exchanges have generally performed better than the federal exchange.

Health policy experts outside the government have begun discussing possible ways to provide relief if the federal website problem continues. One option is to extend the six-month enrollment period, set to end March 31. Another is to exempt some people from the tax penalties that apply to those who go without insurance in 2014. But White House press secretary Jay Carney suggested that it would be unnecessary if the administration fixed the website.

Over the weekend, the administration announced a "tech surge" that would bring in "the best and the brightest from both inside and outside government" to fix the website. But White House officials declined Monday to answer questions about the contractors who designed HealthCare.gov or provide names of the "experts from some of America's top private-sector tech companies" that the president said have offered to help.

The White House also declined to comment on a decision by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius not to testify Thursday at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. Ms. Sebelius has said she will be in Boston that day for a mental health gala at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.Health and Human Services officials said Ms. Sebelius would make herself available to testify before Congress next week, but Republicans said that was not good enough.


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