President Obama came to Boston on Wednesday to deliver his most impassioned defense of his health care program since the bungled marketplace launch earlier this month, returning to the intellectual birthplace of his landmark legislation to defend its integrity.
Speaking before a boisterous crowd of health care executives, Massachusetts politicians, and families, he sought to frame the setbacks as temporary — as they were in Massachusetts — and part of the broad process of meaningful market reforms.
“Yes, this is hard, because the health care system’s a big system, and it’s complicated,” Obama said at Faneuil Hall, where former governor Mitt Romney signed Massachusetts’s landmark health overhaul into law. “But it’s important,” the president said. “We are just going to keep on working at it. We’re going to grind it out, just like you did here in Massachusetts.”
In some of his most emphatic terms yet, the president accepted responsibility for computer crashes and other crippling problems of the rollout, and said he was trying to fix them.
“There’s no excuse for it,” Obama said. “And I take full responsibly for making sure it gets fixed ASAP.”
Obama’s health care law with its insurance mandate, subsidies for low-income people, and online marketplace was modeled on the Massachusetts program. It won narrow approval in Congress in 2010, survived a Supreme Court challenge, and failed to become the fatal political weapon that Republicans hoped it would in the 2012 presidential election.
Now the administration is struggling to clear yet another set of hurdles, both technical and political, implementing a vast and complex law that alters one of the most basic needs of American families.
The online Affordable Care Act marketplace — modeled on the Massachusetts Connector, but far larger and more complex — has often been inoperable or chronically slow since it launched Oct. 1. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of consumers who bought bare-bones individual health plans are receiving cancellation notices because those plans no longer meet minimum standards dictated by the law.
On the friendly political turf of Boston, where residents are already accustomed to the framework of his health care law, the president acted part salesman (“The deal is good, the prices are low”) and part as an angry defender (“We are going to see this through!”).
Obama spoke from the same spot in the same room where Romney signed the state’s groundbreaking law in 2006 with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, looking on.
“Mitt Romney and I ran a long and spirited campaign against one another,” Obama said. “But I always believed that when he was governor here in Massachusetts he did the right thing on health care.”
Several hours before the speech, Romney, who has rarely ventured into the public eye since his 2012 defeat, criticized Obama, ridiculed the federal health law, and said the president failed to learn lessons from Massachusetts.
“A plan crafted to fit the unique circumstances of a single state should not be grafted onto the entire country,” Romney said in a statement issued through his private investment office in Boston. “Had President Obama actually learned the lessons of Massachusetts health care, millions of Americans would not lose the insurance they were promised they could keep . . . and the installation of the program would not have been a frustrating embarrassment.’’
Romney was not invited to the Faneuil Hall event, according to White House officials. In the months since the election, White House officials have pointed to their victory as a sign that the American public supports their vision on health care — not Romney’s.
But this week, the administration has had to deflect complaints that hundreds of thousands of Americans are receiving notices canceling coverage, running counter to Obama’s pledge that, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.”
The cancellations are of bare-bones plans that do not meet new minimum standards and affect about 5 percent of Americans. Those weaker plans, many of them held by consumers in the individual insurance market, often do not cover certain treatments and have lifetime caps on coverage.
Obama encouraged those who are having their policies canceled to “shop around in the new marketplace,” and he said they would discover they are eligible for better plans than the ones they had previously. But several times Obama conceded that people are having a hard time shopping in that new marketplace because the website has been plagued with problems.
Massachusetts also imposed minimum coverage standards, including prescription benefits, beginning in 2009, after Romney left office. That resulted in about 150,000 state residents losing coverage from the cancellation of noncompliant health plans, according to Jon Kingsdale, the former executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector.
In Washington on Wednesday, before Obama landed in Boston, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was grilled in Congress about the problems with the health care act’s launch. She called the rollout a “debacle’’ and said Americans should hold her accountable. Obama also claimed responsibility for the failures.
“There’s no denying it. Right now the website is too slow, too many people have gotten stuck. And I’m not happy about it,” Obama said.
The administration is refusing to release enrollment figures in the new plans until mid-November. Officials are seeking to dampen expectations, pointing to the example of Massachusetts to assert the numbers will rise slowly. Just 123 Massachusetts residents signed up for insurance coverage during its first month, with the bulk coming later once the requirements — and penalties — started to kick in.
But the Massachusetts health care rollout was much smoother, in part because it was smaller and easier to manage than the sprawling federal system. It was also done in several stages, making it easier to fix problems and ensure that the technological system was not overwhelmed. Still, Governor Deval Patrick said while introducing Obama, there were problems with the Massachusetts website. It took years to work out the kinks, he said, but it didn’t prevent the law from becoming a success.
“Everyone thought the sky was going to fall,” said former Senate president Robert Travaglini, who attended Obama’s speech. “It didn’t.”
Obama also made a plea for more bipartisan cooperation, asking Republicans to work with him to fix the law rather than continuing to demand its repeal or delay.
“I’m not asking them to agree with me on everything,” he said. “But if they’d work with us like Mitt Romney did with Democrats in Massachusetts, or like Ted Kennedy did with Republicans in congress . . . we’d be a lot further along.”
Obama flew to Boston aboard Air Force One in the early afternoon. With the sun breaking through partly cloudy skies, the plane landed at Logan International Airport at 2:46 p.m. Obama was joined making his way from the plane by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Representatives John Tierney and William Keating of Massachusetts, Representative Steve Israel of New York, and Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
He was greeted at the bottom of the steps by Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Menino gave the president a Red Sox baseball cap.
Before the speech, Obama stopped with Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell to view a statue of Russell that is being unveiled this week on City Hall Plaza. Following the speech, Obama headed to Weston for a reception and dinner fund-raiser where about 60 high-powered, moneyed attendees filled Democratic coffers. The event was hosted by longtime Democratic fund-raiser Alan D. Solomont and his wife, Susan.
Obama was scheduled to head to the airport after the fund-raiser, leaving about an hour before the first pitch is thrown at Fenway to start Game 6 of the World Series.
“I am well aware that a presidential visit is not the biggest thing going on today in Boston,” Obama said as he warmed up the audience at Faneuil Hall. “I tried to grow a beard. But Michelle, she wasn’t having it.”