Obama: 'No excuse' for health care signup problems (Updated)

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Updated 9:21 a.m.: 'No excuse' for health care signup problems, Obama says

President Barack Obama on Monday said there was "no excuse" for the cascade of computer problems that have marred the rollout of key elements in his health care law, but declared he was confident the administration would be able to fix the issues.

"There's no sugarcoating it," Obama said. "Nobody is more frustrated than I am."

The president said his administration was doing "everything we can possibly do" to get the federally run websites up and running. And he guaranteed that everyone who wants to get insurance through the new health care exchanges will be able to.

Obama's event in the White House Rose Garden had the feeling of a health care pep rally, with guests in the Rose Garden applauding as Obama ticked through what the White House sees as benefits of the law. The president was introduced by a woman who had successfully managed to sign up for health insurance through the marketplaces in her home state of Delaware.

The president insisted that his health care law is about more than just a website.

"The essence of the law, the health insurance that's available to people, is working just fine," he said.

The White House says more than 19 million people have visited HealthCare.gov since the site went live on Oct. 1. Officials also say a half million people have applied for insurance on the federal- and state-run websites.

Administration officials initially blamed a high volume of interest for the frozen screens that many people encountered when they first logged on to the website. Since then, they have also acknowledged issues with software and some elements of the system's design.

However, the White House has yet to fully detail exactly what went wrong with the online system consumers were supposed to use to sign up for coverage. And Obama on Monday did not explain how the problems in detail or why they were not fixed before sign-ups opened to the public.

The president did acknowledge that the failures would provide new fodder for opponents of the law, often referred to as "Obamacare." With the website not working as intended, "that makes a lot of supporters nervous," he said.

But he said, "it's time for folks to stop rooting for its failure."

In an ironic twist, the troubles with the health care rollout were overshadowed at first by Republican efforts to delay or defund the law in exchange for reopening the government during the 16-day shutdown. The bill that eventually reopened the government included no substantive changes to the health care law.

With the shutdown over, GOP lawmakers have been ramping up their criticism of the health care law's troubles.

— Julie Pace, Associated Press

6:41 a.m.: Enrollments for the health care exchanges trickle in, slowly

The Obama administration's hopes ran high that millions would flock to enroll for health insurance on state and federal exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act.

Those exchanges went online Oct 1. The administration projected that half a million individuals or families would enroll within 30 days, according to the Associated Press.

But three weeks in, the data suggest the actual number of enrollments is lagging far behind that number.

The promise of signing up for health insurance with point-and-click ease at healthcare.gov and state exchange sites has not come to pass — at least not yet.

"This is a fiasco," says health policy analyst Bob Laszewski. He says the sites are plagued by glitches and problems with data transfer.

"Literally a handful of enrollments [are] coming through to the largest insurance companies every day," Laszewski says. "Just a handful, like maybe 10 or 20 or 30. So anecdotally, the enrollments are very, very, very low."

Laszewski says the inability to get through to a website is not the only issue. Insurance companies are getting bad information, too.

"It's not uncommon for, say, John Doe's enrollment to come through at 10 in the morning. And then at 10:30 something comes through that says John Doe's unenrolled ... and then enrolled and unenrolled again," he says.

The federal government, which is running exchanges for 36 states through healthcare.gov, has been plagued by technical problems. Health and Human Services hasn't disclosed enrollment figures. But the digital marketing company Millward Brown estimates that 83,000 people enrolled through the federal site in the first two weeks.

The 14 states that opted to run their own online marketplaces appear to be faring better, though not by much. Among those states, the estimate of total enrollees so far is about 46,000. Those numbers are complicated by the fact that there is no common definition of what "enrolled" means. In some states, you're not considered "enrolled" until you've paid.

Laszewski says these small numbers could threaten the economics for insurers.

"They're very worried about only sick people showing up for coverage, because only sick people are willing to go through the gauntlet," he says.

There are two ways of looking at this: One is that the new law is failing to meet expectations. But proponents of the law argue it's still early and that many of these problems can be overcome.

Things will improve, says Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University. He points to the prescription drug benefit known as Medicare Part D. The federal program launched in 2005 during the Bush administration, and had its own technical difficulties.

"Once people were finally signed up, there were problems that they would go to the pharmacy and there was no record of them," Jost says. He expects similar problems here.

"So it will take a while to get the kinks ironed out," he says. "But the important thing right now is to allow people to get signed up, and I think there's an awful lot of people who want to do that."

In fact, there are two states that are declaring their sign-up efforts a success. Carrie Banahan, executive director of Kentucky's Health Benefit Exchange, says more than 15,000 individuals have enrolled.

"We're thrilled with these numbers. We had no idea that there would be such a demand and an overwhelming response," says Banahan.

Kentucky's site was so overwhelmed that administrators had to add servers to its system.

Washington state reports about 30,000 enrollees. Richard Onizuka, CEO of Washington's health exchange, says his state was prepared.

"We started early. We've been working on this for nearly 2 1/2 years," says Onizuka.

Still, even Washington's system crashed. It went down for 4 1/2 hours on the first day.

"It was nerve wracking. We did a lot of analysis and diagnosis," he says. "We were hoping it would get better the second day. It got a little bit better .... We took it down the second night and it got better the third day."

Onizuka says with time, anxiety has gone down.

"I'm breathing a little easier," he says.

The federal government plans to release its first enrollment figures in mid-November.

— Yuki Noguchi, NPR

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


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