WASHINGTON — President Obama conceded Monday that technical "kinks" had bedeviled the rollout of the federal healthcare website, but said the administration had launched a "tech surge" to fix it and emphasized that the law would give uninsured Americans access to reasonably priced, quality insurance.
"Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn't working as well as it should, which means it's going to get fixed," Obama told supporters in the Rose Garden. But he insisted: "The product, the health insurance, is good. The prices are good. It is a good deal. People don't just want it; they're showing up to buy it."
With the shutdown and debt limit crisis past, Washington's attention has turned to persistent problems with the website, which processes enrollments for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. But the site — healthcare.gov — has been plagued since it opened Oct. 1 by glitches that threaten to overshadow Obama's signature domestic accomplishment.
The president relaunched his campaign to sell the law as Republicans announced plans for hearings on the balky website. A Gallup poll last week found that 7 out of 10 uninsured Americans were "not too familiar" or "not familiar at all" with the online marketplaces.
Administration officials initially claimed the problems were caused by the unexpectedly high volume of visitors to the federal portal, which serves consumers in 36 states. Obama acknowledged that the website needed to work "better, faster, sooner," but did not explain what went wrong or when it would work properly. He said "some of the best IT talent in the entire country" was part of a "tech surge" to fix it.
Residents in the other states, including California, Connecticut and Kentucky, shop on state-run marketplaces, which have fared better. But even the Covered California website has endured technical glitches. Many consumers in the state have expressed concern about signing up before the exchange fixes its online directory of doctors and hospitals for the health plans. The provider search tool has been offline since Oct. 9 while the state tries to resolve its problems.
Even as the president sought to reassure Americans, a consensus appears to be growing among tech experts that the online marketplace has fundamental flaws that could take months to repair. Their concerns have been heightened by the Obama administration's refusal to explain the issues in detail.
Administration officials said Monday that they had upgraded the system for authenticating the identity of consumers who set up online accounts to better handle the high volume. They also identified bugs in the application process that caused timeouts, delays and other error messages.
The officials declined to provide additional information, but emphasized that some consumers had successfully enrolled. Nationwide, the administration reported that nearly half a million applications for coverage had been submitted through the state and federal insurance marketplaces.
The troubled rollout of the healthcare law's website has armed Republican critics with new ammunition and made it difficult for Obama to dismiss their denunciations as politically motivated.
"They're going to be looking to go after it even harder," he acknowledged, but he also said, "It's time for folks to stop rooting for its failure because hard-working, middle-class families are rooting for its success."
On Capitol Hill, Republicans see a chance to rebound from their shutdown debacle by highlighting the botched rollout.
"Obamacare's problem is larger than a website failure, and it will take more than a 'tech surge' to fix it," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said in a statement. "The website does serve as stark evidence that the federal government is ill-equipped to centrally manage our nation's healthcare."
On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee plans a hearing on "implementation failures" with testimony from federal contractors engaged with the website.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius "intended to testify," but had a conflict, said spokeswoman Joanne Peters. She was scheduled to be in Phoenix, but officials declined to say why.
The committee's chairman, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), called her decision "wholly unacceptable." Sebelius is expected to testify at another hearing before the committee next week. "We were told repeatedly that implementation was 'on track,' and it is now time for all those responsible to explain what happened," Upton said in a statement. "As the administration continues to withhold important details and enrollment figures, I hope Secretary Sebelius is ready to give answers and finally live up to the president's celebrated claims of transparency."
Many health policy experts say the administration took too long to make key decisions on the website and failed to test it soon enough. But the Obama administration has recently conceded deeper technical problems. Insurance companies have reported that they are not consistently getting accurate data about consumers enrolling in their plans.
Among the major design flaws was the requirement that consumers create an online account before they could compare insurance plans, creating a bottleneck that may have caused long wait times. The Obama administration has changed that feature to allow shoppers on the federal site to "window shop."
Such design flaws are relatively easy to address, said Bill Curtis, chief scientific officer at CAST, a New York-based firm that analyzes information technology systems. "They will get past that," he said.
But evidence has emerged of problems in how the system shares information among federal databases to calculate whether consumers qualify for subsidies to offset the cost of their premiums. That has prompted experts to predict it may take weeks or months to get the marketplace to work properly.
"When you slam a big system together like this in too short of time and without adequate testing, this is what you will often see," Curtis said. "They will solve one problem and it reveals a set of other issues."
Some experts say the Obama administration may need to use more drastic measures, such as taking the website down for a complete overhaul and extending the deadline to sign up. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to enroll, if they want to get coverage starting Jan. 1. The open enrollment period lasts until March 31.
David Gruber, director of healthcare research at Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm in New York, said: "Their incremental fixes are unlikely to work and the consumer experience will remain poor. The question is: 'How often will consumers go back and try it?' At some point, the well runs dry."
As problems persist, anxiety is mounting among the law's supporters and insurers. If only the sickest Americans fight through technical problems to buy a health plan, while younger, healthier Americans stay away, that could drive up future premiums and hamper the viability of the healthcare expansion.
"That could be an unintended consequence of this computer fiasco," Gruber said.
Over the weekend, the Health and Human Services Department said it had hired "some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov."
The administration also has added staff to call centers to handle phone registrations, but officials would not provide details on the number of centers or whether operators would use the same faulty online system.
The president's aides tacitly acknowledged the setbacks. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney suggested the administration might be flexible on when people will have to pay the fine for failing to get health insurance.
As he defended the law and the marketplaces, Obama's pitch had the touch of an infomercial. "The website is still working for a lot of people," he said.
He told uninsured Americans they could also buy insurance by phone or in person. "Real people" are standing by, he said, "24 hours a day."
Flanked by consumers, Obama even supplied testimonial evidence. One satisfied customer introduced him and he read letters from others, including a man named John Mier, who wrote, "Yes, the website really stank for the first week."
"John said that when he saw what they'd be paying, he turned to his wife and told her, 'We might just pull through. We can afford this,'" Obama said. "And John eventually predicted that 'the website will work like a champ.'"
Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun