Obama Turns to High Pressure Sales to Save Obamacare
Policy + Politics

Obama Turns to High Pressure Sales to Save Obamacare

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sounding more like an insurance salesman than the nation’s chief executive on Monday, Obama this morning stressed there are plenty of alternatives to the troubled health care website.

He pitched the 1-800-318-2596 toll free national call-in center to get assistance, downloading and filling out paper applications, or getting assistance in person from trained Obamacare “navigators” at community health care center and hospital.

The president sought to staunch a growing uproar over massive technical problems with Obamacare’s on-line health insurance marketplace, acknowledging that government contractors made numerous mistakes in building the system and pledging to correct the problems in the coming weeks.

With the government shutdown and debt crisis now in the political rear-view mirror, the president and his top aides are saddled with explaining why a nationwide health insurance signup system once touted as “seamless” and relatively problem free is riddled with technical problems and a steadily mounting overall cost that some put at over $600 million.

Even as he insisted that the health insurance, premiums and government subsidies being offered are a “good deal,” Obama said, “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the Web site hasn’t been working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed.”

“There’s no sugar coating it: The website is too slow; people have been getting stuck in the application process,” Obama said.

Obama told health care advocates gathered in the White House Rose Garden that government officials and Internet technology experts in the country were working overtime to try to fix the problems. But he gave no clear time line for ending the humiliating program crisis that has garnered about a half-million applications since the Oct. 1 launch, but only a minimal number of actual enrollments.

While the site is being fixed Americans can apply by phone or in person, Obama said. “So don’t let problems with the website deter you from signing up or signing your family up or showing your friends how to sign up, because it is worth it, it will save you money . . . and it will give you the security that your family needs,” he said.

The president essentially had no choice but to assure the country that his administration could fix the problematic technology. Although Obama said there was "no excuse" for the flaws and delays, blame rests with the officials from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services who oversaw the development of the websites.

According to Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, none of the typical testing benchmarks-- unit testing, application testing, integrated testing, scalability testing, and user testing—could have taken place.

The president also raised the stakes for himself by promising that the phone-in process will go smoothly with relatively short wait times and the assurance that the tech industry's brightest minds are scrambling to repair the sites.

If the sites fail to improve and the enrollment process remains difficult, then the Obama administration not only failed to properly launch the exchanges, but it also failed to adequately repair them. All of this puts on the line the president's ability to deliver on his rhetoric. 

Meanwhile, Republican opponents are glowing declaring that their previous calls for a one-year delay in implementation of Obamacare were prescient and more than justified.

The House on Thursday will hold its first hearing to spotlight the faulty Obamacare website. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — who stumbled badly in defending the program during a recent interview with Jon Stewart —has so far refused to testify. And the administration has refused to release critical data on the number of Americans who have successfully enrolled in the program since the formal launch three weeks ago.

“We believe the American people deserve answers to important questions related to the department’s implementation of the exchanges, and a failure to appear voluntarily to discuss the law’s unfolding challenges would only deepen our concern,” House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders wrote to Sebelius last week.

Republicans and some Democrats say heads must roll for the faulty design and launch of the system, and if things continue to go badly, Sebelius’ job might be on the chopping block.  If the public continues to lose confidence in the program, “There may come a point when she will have to resign,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said yesterday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that “the government simply isn’t going to be able to get this job done correctly.”

The president addressed his GOP antagonists this morning: “I realize Republicans have made blocking the Affordable Care Act their signature policy idea. And I think, with the problems with the Web site so far, they are likely to go after it even harder.”

But, Obama said, “We did not wage this long and contentious battle just around a website. We waged this battle so that millions of Americans in the wealthiest nation on earth could get the same security with affordable health care as anybody else.”

Moreover, he said, those people who got stuck on the on-line system will be contacted by the government shortly with “concrete” recommendations for ways to shop for insurance and complete the application process.

He noted that the current waiting time to get through to a call-in center is less than one minute, “although I admit the wait time might go up a little bit now that I’ve read the number out loud on national television.”

“Once you get on the phone with a trained representative, it usually takes about 25 minutes for an individual to apply for coverage, about 45 minutes for a family,” the president said.

The New York Times reported today that federal contractors have identified most of the main problems hampering the on-line insurance exchanges in three dozen states that rely on the federal exchange, but the administration has been slow to issue orders for fixing those flaws, and some contractors worry that the system may be weeks away from operating smoothly. One specialist said that five million lines of software code may need to be rewritten before the Web site runs properly.

Robert Laszewski, a health care industry consultant who is keeping close tabs on the implementation of Obamacare, told The Fiscal Times, “There are so many key technical problems you can’t sum them up.”

“So, they could fix it in two or three weeks and they could go on stumbling like this for months,” Laszewski said.”There’s just no way to project that. So there is no way to assess for how long this damage is going to continue.”

The Fiscal Times’ Josh Boak contributed to this article.