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Obamacare fiasco

Antje Passenheim, Washington, DC / jrbOctober 31, 2013

For US President Obama, the battles never seem to go away. The budget war has been followed by a troubled start to his health reform as technical glitches prevent people from signing up for insurance.

President Barack Obama Credit: Martin H. Simon +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

US President Barack Obama knows the number in his sleep: 1-800-318-2596. He's been tirelessly telling Americans to call the number to reach the nation's health insurance call center. But that wasn't part of his initial plan.

A core instrument in implementing his long-awaited and prestigious health care reform is www.healthcare.gov website, which was launched on October 1. So far, it's been a complete fiasco.

Not a good situation

Millions of Americans, who have been waiting to buy affordable health insurance, are frustrated. But "no one is more frustrated than I am," the president admitted in a speech in the Rose Garden of the White House.

"The problem is that the site, which is supposed to make it easy to buy insurance, is not functioning the way it should for everyone," a contrite Obama told irked Americans. There's nothing good to say about the situation, he added.

The health care portal was designed to be as easy as ordering a pizza or booking a flight online, according to Obama's team. But Obama himself has been forced to admit that the site "is either too slow or users get stuck in the middle of the application process."

American protesters EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS dpa (zu dpa 0753 «Flop für Gesundheitsreform wäre top für Obama» am 20.06.2012) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Many Americans are opposed to Obama's health care reformImage: picture-alliance/dpa

User Daniel Leaf described his frustration in an interview with ABC News. "Nothing happened; the screen just turned white," Leaf said of his first attempt. The father of three is not covered by health insurance through his job. His attempts to sign up for insurance were stymied by the government website. "As everyone knows by now, nothing works," said Leaf, adding that he needed three days to set up a user account.

Huge frustration

At one point, the frustrated user was close to achieving his goal. After 20 minutes, he managed to get into the program and even chose a provider. Then the page froze. His efforts were in vain, and he remained without insurance - like millions of other Americans, as Obama confirmed in his weekly radio address.

But the president was quick to point to the huge demand for the service. "The web page has been clicked more than 20 million times," he said. "And nearly 700,000 people have already applied for an insurance policy."

The fact is, however, only a fraction of those interested were able to register. The site also provided false information to insurance companies. This was not only an embarrassment but, worse, a disgrace for the 55 private companies that the US Department of Health and Human Services had hired to create the website at a cost $330 million.

President Obama is telling people to dial in for helpImage: REUTERS

Many wonder how Obama, who embraces technology, could ever let his namesake health care project fail because of a website. At a congressional hearing, the contractors gave the blame to the government for requiring last-minute changes while still demanding an October 1 launch.

Possible penalties

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius initially tried to downplay her knowledge of the website issues. Neither she nor the president, the secretary said, had been warned of problems before the October launch. She has since apologized for the glitches and said the site would be running correctly by November 30.

That, however, has not kept Republicans from demanding her resignation. "If she can't put together a team that President Obama needs to realize his agenda, she should go," said Republican congressman Darrell Issa.

For the 40 million uninsured Americans, Obama can only offer the number of the health care call center. Those who call can receive advice in 150 languages ​​around the clock, Obama promises. But it's only advice - callers cannot sign up for insurance during the call.

Kathleen Sebelius and Obama (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius apologized for the website's problemsImage: AP

This doesn't help US citizens escape the penalty they face if they aren't insured from January 2014 onward. Insurance policies can be closed on the government website up to March 31. But those who want to be covered on time by January must have a contract by mid-December. Obama has promised, however, to reconsider the penalty period.

Republicans, who have seen the popularity among voters fall dramatically after the public largely blamed them for a costly federal government shutdown, are rubbing their hands in joy. They still hope to force Obama to abandon his health insurance or at least delay it. American citizens can't be forced to sign up for insurance polices, they have argued, when it is technically not possible to do so, according to Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

"Beginning next year, millions of Americans without tax insurance will be penalized by the tax authorities, even though they are unable to so technically" he said. "That's just not fair."

Last-minute enrollments

Although some Democrats are also angry over the website glitches, Sabrina Corlette from the Institute for Health Policy at Georgetown University in Washington warned that Americans interested in signing up for insurance still had time to do so. "It's only been three weeks from a six-month period," she said of the lost time. "Experience from other health programs has shown that most people tend to enroll at the last minute."

Obama knows that the website needs to be running by then. "In the coming weeks we'll get the website up and running - and as easy to use as it's supposed to be."