WASHINGTON — A frustrated President Obama on Monday acknowledged the extensive technical failings of a new federal website through which millions of Americans are supposed to sign up for health insurance, but he said he would fix it before the problems eclipse his groundbreaking health care law.
“There’s no sugar-coating it,” Obama said in a speech from the Rose Garden. “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.”
Neither Obama nor his administration offered specifics as to how or when the problems would be solved. Nor did Obama speak about the cause or extent of the problems, which caught the administration by surprise when the insurance marketplaces debuted on Oct. 1.
“There’s no excuse for the problems, and these problems are getting fixed,” Obama said.
Health care analysts and IT specialists say the administration is now in a race to solve the glitches by mid-November, after which the health law’s political problems will shift into practical problems. A prolonged repair period could force a delay of the law’s central tenet that individuals purchase coverage by 2014, as well as deter young healthy people from signing up, they said.
Republicans who have hammered away at the Affordable Care Act since it became law in 2010 immediately pounced on Obama for not disclosing details of the problems or the proposed remedy. House Speaker John Boehner criticized the administration for a “troubling pattern” of “seeking to avoid accountability.”
“Every day new questions about the president’s health care law arise, but candid explanations are nowhere to be found,” Boehner said Monday.
The faulty website affects 36 states, including Maine and New Hampshire, that are relying on the federal government to provide a web portal for residents to sign up for mandatory health insurance.
Shopping on the website, healthcare.gov, is a far cry from the experience Obama has repeatedly touted in speeches promoting the law. He often compared buying coverage to the ease of purchasing a plane ticket or shopping on Amazon.com.
But since the website’s rollout three weeks ago, an untold number of consumers have been shut out from buying coverage, or even registering for an account, because the website has repeatedly crashed. Even those who manage to get further along in the process receive inaccurate information about the amount of federal subsidies they are qualified to receive.
Fourteen states, including Massachusetts, have built their own online marketplaces.
The problems with the federal insurance marketplace were largely overshadowed this month by the 16-day government shutdown, which began the same day as the website’s launch.
Since the government reopened last Thursday, many Tea Party Republicans as well as mainstream conservatives have redoubled their commitment to undoing or weakening the law. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has summoned administration officials to a hearing Thursday morning to examine the law’s troubled rollout.
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a member of the committee, called the federal website a “$500-plus million national embarrassment.”
“Top agency officials should be held accountable for this failure,” Scalise said in a statement Monday. “President Obama’s signature health care law is clearly not ready for prime time.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is unable to attend the hearing because of a scheduling conflict but is expected to testify before Congress next week, said an agency spokeswoman.
Representative Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican also on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an interview Monday that the administration should delay the mandate that people obtain coverage by 2014 or pay a tax penalty. Doing otherwise, he said, would be akin to “telling people you’re going to be charged a toll to cross a bridge that’s not there.”
Obama sought also to highlight the positive aspects of the law, standing in the Rose Garden with a group of citizens who managed to sign up for coverage. Obama and administration officials have said the website’s problems were exacerbated by the overwhelming numbers of people visiting the site. So far, he said, the site has received nearly 20 million visits.
The president did not specify in his Monday remarks how many have signed up, except to say that more than half a million have submitted applications through both federal and state-based marketplaces.
While the enrollment period ends March 31, consumers must sign up for insurance by Dec. 15. to be eligible for benefits that begin in January.
Some of the law’s biggest proponents have said the launch of the insurance marketplaces should have been delayed by a month, or expectations should have been set lower. Oregon, for example, announced ahead of time that it would do only a “soft launch” on Oct. 1 and roll out the rest of its marketplace in phases.
“In retrospect, that may have been a wiser thing for the president to do,” said Jon Kingsdale, former head of the Massachusetts health insurance marketplace who is now a consultant helping other states develop their own systems.
Massachusetts, whose health care law served as the model for the federal one, also saw delays in the rollout of its insurance marketplace, Kingsdale said. While the law called for plans to be implemented by Oct. 1, 2006, when the first enrollees signed up, coverage did not start until Nov. 1.
“The law said Oct. 1, but we kind of fudged a little bit,” he said. “People gave us a pass on that. I’m sure if we had more than two Republicans in our Legislature and a Tea Party of any strength, they would have criticized us for that.”