Obama adjusts pitch for healthcare law

WASHINGTON — While a team of techies tries to reboot the broken federal insurance website, President Obama is trying to retool efforts to promote the flailing healthcare law.

The flawed launch of the new online marketplaces has forced Obama to spend time defending the insurance exchanges rather than selling them to a skeptical public, as he had planned. More than a month into the rollout, he has few bright spots to highlight and one big gaping hole to avoid: The website he planned to sell with the zeal of a late-night infomercial pitchman does not work properly.

That puts the White House in change-up mode. The president has shifted how he talks about the law, arguing that it's "more than a website" and focusing on benefits that are not yet easily accessible. During a visit to Dallas on Wednesday, the president will go on offense, aides said, calling on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid so it will cover more low-income people in the state.

The president also has added caveats to his once-unqualified promise that no one will be forced to change their insurance plans. It's now clear that more than a million Americans who buy insurance on the individual market may be forced to find new policies because their old ones do not offer benefits required under the Affordable Care Act.

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"What we said was, you could keep it if it hasn't changed since the law was passed," Obama told supporters Monday night.

Some people have complained that insurance companies tricked them into giving up grandfathered plans only to cancel the replacement policies.

Facing another day of questions on the promises, the website and the outlook for the president's signature legislation, a somewhat exasperated White House spokesman Jay Carney conceded: "Look, I … accept that communications are challenging here."

Partly for that reason, after a visit to Dallas to praise "navigators" — the workers who are enrolling consumers on paper — Obama will return to other topics on his agenda. Upcoming White House events will emphasize his immigration and economic plans. On Friday, the president will travel to the Port of New Orleans to talk about increasing exports.

White House officials say the president knows he can't avoid the subject — and doesn't want to. But they say he doesn't want technological troubles he can't control to consume the rest of his agenda.

On Tuesday, an administration official told lawmakers that the site's functionality was improving and on track to be running smoothly for most users by the end of the month.

Initially, the site, a portal to private insurance plans, was easily overwhelmed by the volume of people trying to register. Now, it can handle 17,000 registrants per hour — or five per second — "with almost no errors," Marilyn Tavenner, the head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee.

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The federal website is intended to service the 36 states whose lawmakers refused to set up their own exchanges. Tavenner, whose agency oversaw its construction, said the number of servers had been doubled to meet demand. She rejected calls to redo the site from scratch.

"This is weeks, not months, and we are not rewriting the architecture," she said.

Such assertions have done little to quiet Republican critics. On Tuesday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, released notes from meetings of the administration's Obamacare "war room" that showed health department officials and contractors scrambling to fix problems in the early days after the website's launch.

At one point, staff realized that callers trying to sign up by phone were hearing advertisements for credit checks because one of the healthcare.gov contractors also sells credit reports, according to the notes. The administration brought in consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton to expand the website's help desk, another note said, "because we did not plan on having a large one."

Furloughs in the federal workforce caused by the 16-day October government shutdown — triggered when congressional Republicans demanded that Obamacare be defunded or delayed as a condition of funding the government — added to the problems. "Casework team was furloughed yesterday, but called back in today, so they should be up soon," one note reads.

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The White House could deflect such stories with tales of successful enrollments — but, as with other communication troubles, the balky website is complicating that strategy.

The president and aides have tried to answer the outcry about cancellation notices by noting that many of those consumers will be eligible for subsidies for comparable plans. But as long as consumers can't easily verify that information on the healthcare.gov website, the argument is "only kind of persuasive," one White House official conceded.

Obama has been pushing alternate methods of enrollment, telling people to sign up by phone or mail. But administration officials cannot say how long those methods take, and paper enrollments are still stalled by the slow computer system. Aides acknowledge those methods will never capture the flood of young, healthy consumers needed to balance older, sicker ones and make insurance affordable for everyone.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met with representatives from top insurance companies Tuesday to discuss the website fixes and enrollment.

The White House maintains that it always expected that the bulk of enrollments, particularly of young people, would happen close to the deadline, citing patterns set by a comparable system in Massachusetts. But Carney acknowledged that insurers were seeing fewer young people signing up than expected.

"There's no question that the problems with the website have exacerbated the trend, which is why we have to work all the harder to make sure that it gets up and running and that we do everything we can to make sure that folks are applying and enrolling," he said.


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