'Frustrated' Obama promises fix for malfunctioning healthcare website

Reuters

* "Nobody's madder than me" over website woes, Obama says

* Website marred by error messages, delays

* Republican critics renew calls for 'Obamacare' delay

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON, Oct 21 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama soughton Monday to limit political damage from the problematic launchof the government website for his signature healthcare law asWashington became embroiled in a new uproar days after apossible debt default was narrowly averted.

With many Americans experiencing error messages and longwaits in trying to sign on to healthcare.gov, Republicans inCongress who have fought the Affordable Care Act since beforeits 2010 passage renewed calls for a delay in the rollout.

There was no indication from the White House that therewould be any high-profile firings amid heavy Republicancriticism of Health and Human Services Secretary KathleenSebelius. Bowing to demands from Republicans, Sebelius agreed totestify Oct. 30 at a House of Representatives oversight hearing.

Obama surrounded himself in the White House Rose Garden witha group of people who have successfully navigated the system. Ina speech, Obama said: "Nobody's madder than me about the factthat the website isn't working as well as it should, which meansit's going to get fixed."

Online insurance exchanges opened on Oct. 1 under the law,often called "Obamacare," to offer health insurance plans tomillions of uninsured Americans. But many people have failed tomake it through the system despite repeated tries.

"There's no sugarcoating it. 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 bythat than I am," said Obama, who counts the law as his mostsignificant domestic policy achievement.

Obama said the healthcare law was "not just a website," aphrase repeated later by White House spokesman Jay Carney, andurged people having trouble signing up to use the telephone,offering a toll-free number - 800-318-2596 - as an alternative.He said those having problems will be contacted personally.

Less than a month ago, on Sept. 26, Obama said it would be"real simple" to get insurance on the exchanges, comparing theprocess with shopping on Amazon.com.

In one of the first surveys of the public's experience withthe health care program, the Pew Research Center reported Mondaythat 14 percent of Americans polled from Oct. 9-13 said they hadvisited an exchange website.

Of that group, 37 percent said the exchanges were workingvery well or fairly well, while 56 percent said they wereworking not too well or not at all well.

The administration has not provided data on how many peoplehave actually managed to enroll in a health insurance plan.

Such figures may not be available until mid-November, DavidSimas, the White House adviser in charge of communicating theadministration's health care strategy, told CNBC.

"Americans didn't get any answers from the president today,but the House's oversight of this failure is just beginning,"said House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress.

The White House said last week that Obama still has "fullconfidence" in Sebelius, whose department is responsible forimplementing the law.

For Republicans, the website's woes offered them a new wayto fight what they feel is Obama's unwarranted expansion of thefederal government. Last week, they were forced to back downfrom a budget fight begun by their bid to cut off funding forthe healthcare law - a squabble that led to a 16-day governmentshutdown and a close call with a debt default.

'IT'S NOT WORKING'

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a central playerin settling last week's fiscal impasse, said the healthcarelaw's problems intensify the need to delay the requirement thatevery American possess health insurance by March 31 or pay apenalty fee.

"Another campaign-style event won't solve the myriadproblems facing consumers under Obamacare," McConnell said."Obamacare costs too much and it's not working the way theypromised. ... It's time for the president to consider delayingthis rushed effort."

Referring to Republicans, White House spokesman Carneycommented Monday that "there's clearly some joy being taken insome quarters" with the program's problems.

The administration said it is considering a fix forAmericans signing up for insurance on the new healthcareexchanges who want to avoid paying a penalty for lackinginsurance.

While the White House has assured Americans they have untilMarch 31 to enroll, the current application process on theexchanges would require them to sign up by Feb. 15 in order toreceive health benefits in March and avoid the fine.

Carney indicated the administration might have flexibilityabout the penalty fees because of the site's problems.

The Affordable Care Act is expected to provide healthcoverage to an estimated 7 million uninsured Americans throughthe new online marketplaces that opened for enrollment in all 50states on Oct. 1.

In the weeks since, many people have encountered a series ofbewildering problems such as error messages, garbled text anddelays loading pages on the website, which is theadministration's online portal for consumers in 36 states.

The administration has said that volume far exceededexpectations, placing a huge burden on the website. Privatesector experts are being brought in to help, officials said.

During the White House ceremony Tuesday, a woman standingdirectly behind Obama appeared to faint as he was speaking. Thepresident, among others, reached out to help her.

She later walked away on her own to applause. The WhiteHouse later said the woman was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

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