Obama Concedes Botched Insurance Website Rollout Cost Time

The Obama administration is asking for people who've been turned off by the government's problem-plagued insurance website to come back. Officials say the website is working better now, though it's still far from fixed.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama's administration has a simple message for people who've been turned off by the problem-plagued Healthcare.gov website. The message is: Come back.

Officials say the website is working better now, though it's still far from fixed. At a "Wall Street Journal" conference yesterday, the president conceded the site's botched rollout has cost the government some time in signing people up for coverage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are going to have to A, fix the website so everybody feels confident about that. We're going to have to obviously remarket and rebrand. And that will be challenging in this political environment. But keep in mind, in the first month we also had 12 million people visit the site. The demand is there.

INSKEEP: The administration is encouraging people to keep trying the website. A full-throated marketing campaign will have to wait until the fragile site can handle heavier traffic. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was promoting the insurance exchange yesterday in Florida, where nearly a quarter of the people go without health insurance. Some three-and-a-half million Floridians are eligible to buy coverage on the new exchange. But during the first month the website was operating, only about one in a thousand of those signed up. Sebelius admits the administration has some work to do.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: The only way to, you know, win back the confidence of I think, consumers and the American people, is have the site working at a far different rate and then reach out to them.

HORSLEY: Sebelius says the website is getting faster and can now handle more traffic than it could six weeks ago. That was confirmed by people who've been using the website in Florida.

ANNE PACKHAM: Oh, definitely. Compared to the first days, when you couldn't even get a log-in or people were not even able to get to the first screen, it's vastly improved.

HORSLEY: Anne Packham is with Florida's Primary Care Access Network, a group that's been working to sign people up for coverage.

She says one client managed to get all the way through the process in an hour, though most take longer and assistants still sometimes resort to using the toll-free telephone number.

PACKHAM: Every day's a little bit different. Like the website gets a little better every day. There are new features added. If one thing isn't working one day, then we'll try another method.

HORSLEY: For weeks now, the administration has been promising the website will work smoothly for most people by the end of this month. But even then, they say, about one in five may have to call for help, either because of ongoing technical problems or because their personal situation is more complicated than the website can handle.

Sarah Lueck, who studies health policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, says even when the website is fully functional, comparing insurance options can be difficult.

SARAH LUECK: People don't really like doing health insurance shopping. Right? This isn't like fun. It's more like, you know, doing your taxes than it is for shopping for an airplane ticket where you're going to take a nice vacation.

HORSLEY: Lueck says the government needs to keep the sign-up process simple so healthy people won't get discouraged and will buy coverage along with the sick.

LUECK: If you have healthier people and average-health people all in the same group with people who have health problems, it lightens the burden overall for everybody and makes the coverage more affordable and stable over time.

HORSLEY: Both the government and insurance companies have planned extensive marketing campaigns to drive people to the insurance exchanges. Much of that marketing megaphone has been muffled, though, until the kinks in the website are straightened out.

LUECK: Companies and the administration don't want to drive people into a system that's been frustrating in a lot of cases. But as things get better, I think that that will change. And certainly there are deadlines coming up. So people need the information. So I'm certain that it will ramp up.

HORSLEY: People have until mid-December to sign up for coverage that begins on January 1st.

Sebelius made a low-key pitch to young people in Florida yesterday, as she visited a technical college in Orlando. The health secretary says it's a myth that young people are not interested in buying health insurance. As evidence, she pointed to 22-year-old Daniel McNaughton, one of the first people in Florida to sign up.

DANIEL MCNAUGHTON: You know, it's like car insurance. I get it because I don't plan on getting into an accident. But if something were to happen, I'm covered.

HORSLEY: The administration hopes more young people follow McNaughton's example, once it's hammered out all the dents from its own computer crash.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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