TAMPA — As the Obamacare website continued to lock out shoppers a week after its debut, the president's top lieutenant on the health care law returned to Florida to offer reassurances that the system would get fixed.
"We're working, really, around the clock," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after an event at the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation. "Today is better than yesterday, and we're hoping in the near future to have a seamless process."
Sebelius, who has visited Florida at least six times since June, wouldn't say when the site to purchase subsidized coverage will function properly. Many visitors to Healthcare.gov haven't been able to create an account, necessary just to view the plans offered by private insurers.
Monday night, Sebelius got a grilling by Daily Show host Jon Stewart. "I'm gonna try and download every movie ever made," said Stewart, "and you're gonna try and sign up for Obamacare — and we'll see which happens first."
The administration won't say how many people have been able to sign up for a plan using the site. Sebelius said that information would be released monthly. Last week, officials blamed unprecedented Web traffic — nearly 3 million visitors on the first day — but now acknowledge that some software components were ill-equipped.
"Should we have predicted it? Maybe we could've done a better job," Sebelius said Tuesday. "I think it's an indication that people have been waiting a very long time for affordable health care."
Private contractors that built the federally run health exchanges in nearly 36 states are working on the problems. Some federal employees working on the exchanges, including some who deal directly with insurance companies, have been furloughed as part of the federal government shutdown, she said. But at her agency, she said, the furloughs have had a bigger impact on programs such as cancer treatment trials at the National Institutes of Health. Sebelius' frequent visits are another sign that Florida, where nearly 25 percent of people go without coverage, a rate second only to Texas, is critical to the health care law's success. "Florida is one of the big markets the federal government is responsible for," she said.
The online marketplaces are aimed at people who can't get affordable insurance through an employer or from government programs such as Medicare.
People who make between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level may be eligible for subsidies to help pay their premiums. In states like Florida, where legislators refused federal funds to expand eligibility for Medicaid, many residents will be left out. About 1 million Floridians are too poor to qualify for subsidies, but can't get Medicaid.
Sebelius on Tuesday repeated earlier calls for the state Legislature to take the federal money — $51 billion over a decade — for Medicaid. "The offer is on the table," she said.
Joining her were Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, two college students who plan to shop for coverage on the exchange, and Jodi Ray, who runs a USF-based organization that received federal dollars to train and hire "navigators" to help people sort through their marketplace options.
Ray could not say how many people her partner agencies have enrolled through the exchanges. One of her lead navigators, Michelle Ray (no relation), said the USF office in Tampa had signed up about 15 people through the website, paper applications and the government's toll-free helpline.
The success of the online marketplace will depend on whether enough healthy people sign up. Insurers can no longer discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions, so a diverse pool is needed to make the program sustainable. Asked what would happen if the exchanges didn't enroll enough people, Sebelius said, "I don't think that's going to be our problem."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.