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Obama backs Sebelius despite Obamacare website glitches

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Two weeks into the federal government's disastrous launch of Obamacare's online marketplaces, the White House said Tuesday that President Obama still supports beleaguered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in spite of calls for her resignation.

Complaints about the user-unfriendliness of HealthCare.gov are pouring in from consumers, insurers, opponents of the administration and even from presidential allies such as former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who called the program's rollout "excruciatingly embarrassing."

Mrs. Sebelius would be a good bet in Washington office pools for "next head to roll," but the White House defended her management of the president's signature entitlement program.

"The secretary does have the full confidence of the president," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

"She, like everyone else in this effort, is focused on our No. 1 priority, which is making the implementation of the Affordable Care Act work well."

But even Mr. Obama is privately expressing unhappiness with the product launch, with some Republican senators who met with him at the White House late last week describing the president as "angry" about Obamacare's numerous glitches. Across the country, people have reported an inability to sign up on the websites for coverage, even with specially-trained aides to assist them.

As complaints about the website's poor design have risen, the administration has largely ditched its initial explanation that the program was suffering from too much popularity and high user demand. One reporter tried unsuccessfully for more than 10 days to create an account, even at low-demand times such as 3 a.m.

Mr. Carney hinted at Mr. Obama's annoyance when he said, "The president wants these matters addressed because he wants to make sure that Americans across the country have the best possible consumer experience as they look at their options and the plans available to them." He added that, on the president's orders, "people are working 24/7 to resolve the problems that have arisen."

Many Democrats are expressing relief that the government shutdown saga, which coincided with the start of the Obamacare marketplaces, has shielded the administration from worse news coverage about the program's dreadful start. A question about Obamacare's problems at Tuesday's White House press briefing was the first one from the White House press corps in more than a week.

Two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, have called on Mrs. Sebelius in the past week to resign. Mr. Fleming said Tuesday that she should step down because her department had three years to prepare for the debut of online insurance markets, and he called the program "a ship in search of an iceberg."

"The rest of it is going to get a lot worse," Mr. Fleming told Fox News. "It's actually going to go down from here, not up. We may find Bigfoot before we actually find an enrollee."

The CEO of Aetna, Mark T. Bertolini, said his company's role as a tester for the system before it launched gave him indications of the huge problems that awaited consumers and insurers alike.

"There's so much wrong, you just don't know what's broken until you get a lot more of it fixed," Mr. Bertolini said on CNBC. "We were pretty nervous as we got further along. As they started missing deadlines, we were pretty convinced it was going to be a difficult launch."

The Obama administration won't say how much taxpayers have spent to design the online marketplaces, but others have estimated the cost at more than $630 million. Mr. Carney said Tuesday he didn't know how much extra the government would need to spend to correct the problems.

Leading up to the opening of insurance markets Oct. 1, the White House generally deflected questions about its own expectations of how consumers would respond. Officials instead cited a congressional estimate that 7 million people would gain coverage in the first year through the markets, which offer subsidized private insurance to people who don't have a job-based health plan.

The draft obtained by The Associated Press, dated Sept. 20, broke down the figure of 7 million among states. It estimated the expected enrollment in California, for example, at 1. 3 million people in 2014. The estimate for Texas was 629,000 and for Florida, 477,000. The report estimated 340,000 people would enroll in Washington state, and 218,000 in New York.

The final report, released Sept. 25, omitted the enrollment estimates, but it was identical in most other respects.

While consumer interest in the new health insurance markets has been undeniably strong, it's hard to get a sense of how many people have been able to navigate balky federal and state websites and successfully enroll. Numbers released by states running their own marketplaces suggest upward of 100,000 people have enrolled so far, out of millions of potential interested customers.

The administration refuses to release numbers for the 36 states in which it is taking the lead. Officials at first said the frozen computer screens and other issues were the result of a high volume of interest. They later acknowledged software and design issues were also to blame.

The Affordable Care Act allows states to choose whether to set up their own insurance exchanges or have the federal government do it for them.

Congress and the administration had anticipated most states would want to craft the market to their residents' needs. But that didn't happen.

Instead, 34 states opted to let the federal government run all or part of their exchanges, funneling residents of those states to one federal website.

Additionally, Idaho and New Mexico decided to set up their own exchanges, but they are relying on the federal site for the first round of open enrollment.

The site, HealthCare.gov, sent visitors to a "holding page" message due to heavy volume during the first week of implementation.

The portal is supposed to let users without employer coverage apply and shop for coverage — often with the help of income-based subsidies — or direct users to state-run exchanges in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, state-run exchanges in Kentucky and other places have reported success stories in the early weeks of implementation.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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