Obama To Visit Dallas To Smooth Bumps In Health Care Sign-Up

President Obama travels to Dallas on Wednesday to meet with volunteers who've been working to educate consumers about the government's new health insurance marketplace. That task has been made more difficult by persistent technical problems plaguing the website.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today, President Obama meets some of the volunteers trying to sign up Americans for health insurance. The volunteers work in Texas, where the president is traveling.

MONTAGNE: The trip to Dallas is partly to raise money for Democratic Senate candidates, and partly the promote the new health care law. But in Dallas, it's hard to miss the current gap between that law's ambition and its current execution.

INSKEEP: Technical problems with the government's new health insurance website have made the volunteers' work more difficult. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: If any state needs better access to health insurance, it's Texas, where one out of four people is currently uninsured - a higher rate than in any other state.

The Dallas Area Interfaith Group has been hoping to find coverage for many of those uninsured through the government's new health care exchange. The group even printed up a glossy guidebook in English and Spanish. But pediatrician Barry Lachman, who's active in the interfaith group, says their sales job has been complicated by the balky government website.

DR. BARRY LACHMAN: How do we tell people that this is the best thing since sliced bread when you can't really enroll?

HORSLEY: Mimi Garcia faces a similar challenge. She's the Texas director for Enroll America, a nonprofit group that's been trying to sign people up for insurance coverage across the country.

MIMI GARCIA: We certainly have frustration with the challenges that there have been with the website. But there are so many questions to get answered on the front end, that we've been working with people just to get those initial questions answered and make sure people are prepared to enroll when the website is fully up and running.

HORSLEY: In Dallas today, President Obama plans to offer a pep talk to volunteers like these. Earlier this week, he admitted to a group of grassroots supporters in Washington the website continues to have problems more than a month after its initial launch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know you're not happy about it because as long as the website's not working the way it should, it makes it harder for you to help them get covered. And that's unacceptable. And I'm taking responsibility to make sure that it gets fixed. And it will be fixed. We're working overtime to get it fixed.

(APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: At a congressional hearing yesterday, Marilyn Tavenner, who heads the government agency overseeing the health insurance exchange, said the website is improving week by week. It's now able to process nearly 17,000 applications every hour. But on Monday, the site crashed again. Tavenner says until it's working smoothly - hopefully, by the end of this month - the administration won't begin its heavy marketing push to get millions more Americans signed up.

MARILYN TAVENNER: We will not start that campaign until we stabilize the site over the next few weeks. And then we will spend December, January, February and March reaching out to individuals.

HORSLEY: Republicans, who've long opposed the president's health care overhaul, have tried to capitalize on the website's problems. But Democrats are complaining, too. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski warns the technical problems threaten to undermine the reform her party fought so hard for.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI: What I worry about is that there's such a crisis of confidence, people won't enroll. And the very people we need to enroll - particularly our young people - to make this whole system work, won't happen.

HORSLEY: The balky website has also aggravated another problem - of people who had insurance, but whose policies are now being canceled. Obama says many of those people will eventually find better coverage, but he admits that's little comfort when they're unable to shop around.

OBAMA: While the website isn't working as fast as it needs to, that makes it tougher. And that makes it scarier for folks.

HORSLEY: As software teams struggle to fix those bugs, Obama will stress another part of the health care law: an expansion of Medicaid that aides say could cover more than a million people in Texas, mostly at federal expense. So far, Texas officials have rejected that offer.

Passing the health care law consumed much of the president's first year in office. A lot of us didn't realize, Obama said this week, passing the law was the easy part.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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