President Barack Obama played salesman in chief Monday as he tried to smooth over the rough start of the federal website for the new health insurance marketplaces. The president is on target when he says that in the big picture the Affordable Care Act is a great deal for Americans. But his assurances that the faulty website is "going to get fixed" were less convincing. Obama didn't offer a timeline and instead suggested that applying for coverage over the phone and in person were good options. That's not good enough, and the website has to be fixed before the problems jeopardize the success of health care reform.
By acknowledging the technical problems and explaining that a "tech surge" has been unleashed to fix them, Obama recognized the frustration millions of Americans have felt in trying to navigate www.healthcare.gov. The federal website has been a mess since it opened three weeks ago. It was supposed to be nearly as easy as ordering a book from Amazon.com. America's uninsured would go online, register, learn about their health insurance options and if they qualify for subsidies, and sign up for coverage that begins in January.
Instead, consumers have confronted locked computer screens, cryptic error messages and difficulty creating a user account that allows them to move through the rest of the site. Those who make it to health plan options often find there is no way to determine if their doctor is in a network or if a particular prescription drug is part of a plan.
Obama says the site is improving, technicians are working around the clock and the government has added people to its phone center. But the rollout mess reinforces the inaccurate claim that health care reform is too big and complex to work. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio plans to file legislation to delay the individual mandate for coverage until six months after the General Accounting Office certifies the marketplace works. He's trying to kill it, not fix it.
The Republicans really fear that the Affordable Care Act will work so well that Americans won't be willing to part with it. The volume of traffic — about 20 million unique hits — on the federal website is indicative of the pent-up demand for affordable health coverage.
Despite the disappointing start, the numbers so far are promising. About 500,000 applications have been filled out, half of those from states that built their own online marketplaces, where the rollouts have been more successful. Residents in the 34 states, including Florida, that left it to the federal government to create their insurance marketplaces are having the most trouble.
The Obama administration should have been better prepared to handle the traffic on the website. Issues are to be expected when major government benefits are introduced, but such significant problems are inexcusable when so much is riding on the success of the insurance marketplaces.