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Last updated: October 21, 2013 8:30 pm
Barack Obama, who forged his political career by harnessing the power of the internet, was forced to admit that the launch of the online exchanges at the heart of his signature healthcare reforms had been botched.
Excruciatingly long wait times, error messages and other problems have prevented millions of uninsured Americans from signing up for insurance on the new portals. They were supposed to offer a simple way to buy highly regulated and mostly subsidised health plans for the first time as part of the “Obamacare” reforms.
“Nobody’s 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,” the US president said. “There’s no sugar-coating it. The website has been too slow . . . nobody’s more frustrated by that than I am.”
But he also offered a robust defence of the Affordable Care Act – saying it was “not just a website” – amid mounting questions from Republicans about who was to blame for the website’s flaws.
It was a rare admission of failure from a president whose administration has prided itself on its competent handling of challenging situations from natural disasters to hunting terrorists.
In an address in the White House Rose Garden, Mr Obama urged uninsured Americans not to be deterred by the healthcare.gov site problems and encouraged them to bypass the technology, which cost about $400m to build, and sign up for new plans the old-fashioned way: in person or by phone.
“The product is good,” he said. “If you don’t have health insurance, if you’ve got a pre-existing medical condition, it will save you money and it will give you security that your family needs.”
Mr Obama said the “best IT talent in the entire country” were working on the technology glitches and that the White House was “confident” that the problems would be fixed. But the administration has offered few details about the source of the technology problems or how quickly they might be resolved.
Those questions will be the subject of congressional hearings led by Republicans who see a fresh opportunity to attack the healthcare law, which they have vehemently opposed since its 2010 passage.
Mr Obama’s remarks were skewered by John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, who said the president had offered up “self-congratulation” rather than “accountability”.
“Either the president doesn’t grasp the scale of the law’s failures or he doesn’t believe Americans deserve straight answers,” he said.
Mr Obama said blocking the Affordable Care Act seemed to be the “one thing” that unified Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“I’m sure given the problems with the website so far, they’re going to be looking to go after it even harder,” Mr Obama said, acknowledging that some of the law’s supporters were getting “nervous” about it facing new fire from the right.
We’re going to look at contractors, Oracle and others, and whether or not they did their job, not only writing code but alerting the government to a potential problem. What did they know and when did they know it?
- Darrell Issa, Republican chairman of House oversight committee
The woman in the line of fire is Kathleen Sebelius, the president’s health secretary, who oversaw implementation of the law and has been called to appear before the House energy and commerce committee on Thursday. A spokeswoman said she intended to testify but that she had a “scheduling conflict”.
Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, told the Financial Times that he was prepared to examine the contractors behind the website.
“We’re going to look at contractors, Oracle and others, and whether or not they did their job, not only writing code but alerting the government to a potential problem. What did they know and when did they know it?” he said.
CGI, a Canadian contractor, said in a statement that it was working “around the clock” to improve healthcare.gov, a system it said was “complex, ambitious and unprecedented”.
QSSI did not immediately return requests for comment.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, would not be drawn on whether the Obama administration might consider delaying the individual mandate to purchase insurance or face a tax penalty, but noted under the law that the penalty was waived for individuals who did not have access to affordable medical coverage.
“The law is clear that if you do not have access to affordable health insurance, you do not have to pay the penalty,” he said.
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