President Obama didn’t surprise anyone with his expression of frustration Monday over the troubled rollout of his signature policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
In Rose Garden remarks, Mr. Obama highlighted the benefits of the law, which will allow many Americans unable to buy health insurance to get coverage. The president was flanked by people who have enrolled in the program, or plan to, as well as people helping consumers learn about the law.
But it’s the massive problems with HealthCare.gov, the federal insurance marketplace that is handling enrollment for 36 states, that have made headlines. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been unable even to get to Step 1 on the site. Obama laid out alternative ways to enroll, including by telephone.
“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,” he said.
Noticeably absent from Obama’s remarks was any mention of Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services since the start of his administration and his top advocate for the law. (She was seated in the front row at Obama’s Rose Garden statement, not up at the podium with him.) Over the weekend, as HHS was putting out word that it was bringing in “the best and brightest” to implement a “tech surge” to fix HealthCare.gov, numerous Republican senators called for her resignation.
The GOP outpouring against Secretary Sebelius might in fact only cause Obama to circle the wagons and keep her in her job, if he even has a notion of letting her go. Plus, firing her at this crucial moment in the Obamacare rollout doesn’t do anything to further his goal of fixing the site as quickly as possible. The clock is ticking: Anyone who wants his or her health coverage to begin on Jan. 1 must enroll by Dec. 15.
Furthermore, finding a new HHS secretary and then getting that person through a Senate confirmation would be a huge political challenge.
Still, the president faces growing embarrassment over the problem-plagued rollout, and he may at some point feel the need to do something dramatic to save public confidence in his new health-insurance program.
Some 56 percent of Americans see the problems with HealthCare.gov as a sign of broader problems with putting the law into effect, according to an ABC News poll released Monday. Forty percent see the website problems as an isolated incident.
Calls have also been increasing for Sebelius to testify before Congress on the troubled rollout, and on Monday, an HHS spokeswoman put out word that the secretary will testify soon before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
“We fully intend for the Secretary and other HHS officials to testify before Congress as early as next week, as they have numerous times in the past, but nothing is confirmed at this time,” HHS’s Joanne Peters said in a statement. “We have always indicated to the committee that she intended to testify but that she had a scheduling conflict. We continue to work with them to find a mutually agreeable date in the near future.”
In an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal, Sebelius made clear she won’t resign.
“It’s tough to take these shots,” she said. "But I will take them until we get this right."
Sebelius also acknowledged that the problems with HealthCare.gov are more than just “glitches,” adding that the site did not undergo adequate testing before the rollout, particularly for such high volumes of traffic.
Republicans, meanwhile, are piling on, and now that the government shutdown is over, they have a clearer shot at driving home their message that Obamacare is a “disaster.” That point is laden with irony, given that it was the Republicans who drove the shutdown by linking new government funding and a higher debt ceiling to an effort to defund Obamacare, a move that many Republicans now say was ill-considered.
On Monday, the Republican National Committee sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services requesting information on the number of Americans who have enrolled so far via HealthCare.gov. Democrats call it a stunt.
The Obama administration says it plans to release numbers on a monthly basis, beginning in mid-November.