President Barack Obama gestures while speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Oct. 21, 2013, on the initial rollout of the health care overhaul. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
Washington —President Barack Obama on Monday said there was “no excuse” for the cascade of computer problems that have marred the rollout of a key element 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 where people are supposed to apply for insurance up and running. That includes bringing in additional technology experts from inside and outside the government to work on the issues.
People have until March 31 to sign up for coverage. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office had projected that about 7 million people would gain coverage through the exchanges during the first year.
The president on Monday guaranteed that everyone who wants to get insurance through the new health care exchanges will be able to, even if they have to enroll over the phone or fill out a paper application. The White House also appeared to open the door to the possibility that people trying to purchase insurance who were confounded by website problems might be exempted from the law’s penalty for remaining uninsured after March 31.
In Michigan, consumers are signing up for insurance in huge numbers despite continuing website issues that have forced many to resort to paper applications.
Michigan Consumers for Healthcare said assisters at roughly 250 locations in its network are working around problems on the federal website, www.healthcare.gov, by having people fill out paper application forms. The group is the state’s leading “navigator” organization appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to assist Michiganians with the sign-up process.
“It’s not ideal,” Don Hazaert, the group’s director, said of the paper applications. “It’s not the intention of anyone ... but until the technical problems are resolved, that’s our best option.”
State officials don’t know how many people have visited Michigan’s health insurance marketplace because the state isn’t running its own website. Instead, Michigan is among 26 states whose health insurance exchanges are hosted on the federal website at www.healthcare.gov.
The federal government has added a new way for consumers to sign-up over the phone as well as webtools that allow people to preview costs without having to actually purchase a plan. The website features a savings calculator, and consumers can also view prices prior to subsidies.
Madiha Tariq, manager of the Affordable Healthcare and Enrollment Initiative at Dearborn-based ACCESS, said the group filed 204 paper applications between Oct. 1 and Oct. 17 — but was able to complete only eight online applications. ACCESS is one one of four Michigan organizations named as official navigators by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
According to Madiha, the group conducted 418 in-person counseling sessions to explain the insurance exchange to families, including 188 with non-English speakers. The group opened 11 online marketplace accounts.
She’s optimistic despite the computer frustrations.
“This week was very encouraging for us,” Tariq said. “If you log on in the evenings or on the weekends, it’s going pretty quickly so that’s promising. I’m feeling very good about this. I think next week is going to be even better.”
The rollout failures have been deeply embarrassing for the White House. The issues have called into question whether the administration is capable of implementing the complex policy and why senior White House officials — including the president — appear to have been unaware of the scope of the problems when the exchange sites opened on Oct. 1.
Obama, in his most extensive remarks about the health care problems, insisted Monday that the 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 during his 25-minute remarks.
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.
Although administration officials have acknowledged issues with software and some elements of the system’s design, they have repeatedly cited high consumer interest as among the factors overwhelming the website when people try to log on.
“There’s no question that the volume has caused some of the problems but also exposed some of the problems,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.