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Operators standing by: Obama puts happy face on disastrous Obamacare rollout

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With problems mounting on Obamacare's costly website, President Obama tried to convince the public Monday that the health care law is "really good," even as he urged consumers to bypass online enrollment in favor of low-tech options such as mailing paper applications or calling a toll-free number.

Three weeks into Obamacare's launch, the president was forced by facts to acknowledge that HealthCare.gov is slow and clunky, when it works at all.

"There's no sugarcoating it," Mr. Obama said in the White House Rose Garden. "The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process. Nobody is more frustrated by that than I am."

It was Mr. Obama's first public comment about the website's failures, and it was a far cry from the president's bravado of four weeks ago, when he told Americans that a few glitches would be inevitable and that people should disregard the program's naysayers.

As the president spoke, a female Obamacare supporter standing behind him began to faint. Mr. Obama helped catch her and joked that it was a result of "when I talk too long."

One source of the website's troubles appears to be the testing procedures employed before the Oct. 1 rollout. Several developers of the HealthCare.gov website told The Associated Press that they were worried for months about the system's readiness and whether the software meant to link key computer systems was being properly put through its paces.

Even as the president was delivering his speech, more problems emerged. The administration said a planned upgrade to the website was postponed indefinitely and that online Spanish-language sign-ups would remain unavailable, despite a promise to Hispanic groups that the capability would start this week.

With the success of the health care law itself increasingly in doubt, the White House tried to finesse questions Monday about whether the computer problems would lead to more delays in Obamacare coverage, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

White House press secretary Jay Carney wouldn't answer a question about whether the individual mandate would be delayed because of enrollment problems or whether Americans would be penalized if they are unable to enroll.

Mr. Obama said the administration is stepping up efforts to fix the website by hiring more outside consultants to troubleshoot a system that is described as 10-year-old technology. The administration hasn't said how much these efforts will cost; estimates indicate the website already has cost taxpayers more than $600 million.

Republicans have been trying for three years to delay or defund Obamacare, even provoking a 16-day government shutdown this month over the program's future. But few developments have crystallized their complaints as much as the sight of Mr. Obama urging consumers to find other ways to enroll because of breakdowns of HealthCare.gov.

With the air of an "operators-are-standing-by" TV pitchman, the president said people can buy insurance the old-fashioned way, by showing up at an office in person, calling an 800 number (800/318-2596) or mailing a form via the U.S. Postal Service.

"The call centers are available," Mr. Obama said. "You can talk to somebody directly and they can walk you through the application process. You can also apply in person with the help of local navigators — these are people specially trained to help you sign up for health care."

The president tried to put a happy face on the embarrassing rollout of his signature achievement, saying the law is much more than an incompetently designed home page.

"The health insurance that's being provided is good," Mr. Obama said. "It's a right for all to enjoy, and I intend to deliver on that promise."

Republican lawmakers said the president's latest defense of Obamacare shows a White House in denial about the law's harmful impact on the economy.

"The Rose Garden isn't big enough to fit the millions of American families receiving letters in the mail that the health insurance they like is being canceled or that their premiums and out-of-pocket expenses are going up yet again," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. "The fact that the president is bringing in outside experts to work on the Obamacare website is little comfort to the thousands of workers, including those at more than 100 school districts across the country, that have had their hours cut because of Obamacare mandates."

Under the law, large companies must provide health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours a week, or pay a fine. Growing evidence shows that the requirement is causing some employers to cut workers' hours.

Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican and a registered nurse, said the president is ignoring examples of people who will pay higher premiums or higher deductibles under Obamacare.

"The president's breathtakingly naive speech today will do nothing to ease the pain of millions of Americans who are suffering as a result of his 'signature domestic policy achievement,'" she said. "Obamacare is not a 'good product,' nor is it the product he promised it would be."

Although tech specialists say the website's poor design is primarily responsible for its failure, Mr. Obama continued to portray the problems as too much demand and uncertainty caused by partisan attacks.

"I'm sure that given the problems with the website so far, they're going to be looking to go after it even harder," he said of Republican lawmakers. "And let's admit it — with the website not working as well as it needs to work, that makes a lot of supporters nervous because they know how it's been subject to so much attack, the Affordable Care Act generally."

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

The president said nearly 20 million people have visited HealthCare.gov and about 500,000 people have applied for insurance since Oct. 1. But he didn't say how many people have purchased policies; the administration has promised to release that number in mid-November.

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