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President Obama today acknowledged there are serious problems with the new government website that consumers can use to shop for health insurance. He promised a tech surge to fix those problems. In the meantime, he says there are other ways to sign up for coverage. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the glitchy site has become a political liability for the White House, as it rules out one of the most visible aspects of the controversial health care law.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Three weeks ago, when the government's online insurance market opened, President Obama boasted it would make shopping for health insurance as easy as buying a TV on Amazon or a plane ticket on Kayak. But many consumers have found navigating the website more like traversing the Amazon in a leaky kayak. While at first the administration blamed those problems on overwhelming demand, today, the president admitted the site is not working as it should.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it's fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.
HORSLEY: The launch of the online marketplace should have been a moment of celebration for Obama, with millions of people who'd previously been denied health insurance lining up to buy coverage he campaigned so hard for. With many of those consumers still struggling to gain access to the website, though, the president acknowledged he's handed a big club to his Republican opponents. They've been fighting the health care law every step of the way.
OBAMA: I'm sure that given the problems with the website so far, they're going to be looking to go after it even harder.
HORSLEY: Indeed, Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have had a field day attacking the government-run insurance market.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: A visit to the website is kind of like a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicle in your state.
HORSLEY: Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" over the weekend, McConnell argued the bulky website is just the tip of an Obamacare iceberg.
MCCONNELL: The government simply isn't going to be able to get this job done correctly. And even if you were lucky enough to get on to sign up, you're going to find you got fewer choices and higher premiums. This is a very bad deal for the American people.
HORSLEY: Obama tried to combat that argument today, insisting the health care law is much more than just a website. The problems with the online insurance market don't affect the expansion of Medicaid under the law or the new protections for people who get health coverage through their employer. What's more, the president notes, in many cases, the health insurance being offered to the website is more affordable than forecasters had expected.
OBAMA: 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.
HORSLEY: So it's doubly frustrating when they're stymied by the website. Obama vowed the technical problems will be fixed but that won't be easy. Elaine Kamarck, who helped developed the National Performance Review in the Clinton White House, says developing an online market that can work with government databases was always going to be more challenging than building a website to sell appliances or plane tickets. That's especially true when you're in a bunker and your political opponents are lobbing shells at you.
ELAINE KAMARCK: The political environment complicates everything, right? So the technical problems with the website's become a political issue. But solving the technical problems is simply a technical issue.
HORSLEY: But Kamarck, who's now at the Brookings Institution, warns there could be bigger problems if the website is not fixed and the shopping experience remains so unpleasant many healthy people just give up. After all, if you're healthy and you don't really need to see a doctor or you've been managing to just pay out of pocket, well, you're not going to sit in front of a computer for hours and hours.
And insurance only works if it attracts the healthy as well as the sick. The president stressed we're only three weeks into a six-month shopping window. While fixes to the website are made, he said, consumers can still shop for insurance by telephone or in person.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.