US President Barack Obama went on television on Monday to admit glaring failures in the rollout of the new healthcare law that he has championed for so long.
Web site errors that have slowed signups to “Obamacare” in the three weeks since its launch are embarrassing on multiple fronts for the White House and represent a ballooning political challenge.
The faulty debut of the Healthcare.gov Web site is spurring questions over Obama’s competence in implementing a law he wagered his presidency to pass three years ago, but which has yet to deliver a political payoff.
The Washington Post reported late on Monday that in a test a few days before the site was to be launched, the system crashed in a simulation in which just a few hundred people tried to sign on simultaneously.
The Web site went live on Oct. 1 anyway and seized up shortly after midnight as about 2,000 users tried to complete the first step for buying health insurance, the paper said, quoting two people familiar with the project.
The embarrassment is even more acute since Obama built his career on exploiting the power of the Internet to build a political movement and woo Americans over the heads of the news media.
The healthcare storm was building for days, but was obscured by the furor over a narrowly avoided debt default and partial US government shutdown.
However, the White House seems to have sensed that the row was about to escalate and over the weekend made clear that Obama would address the Web site glitches head on.
“There’s no sugarcoating it,” the US president said. “I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am.”
Yet his appearance in the White House Rose Garden on Monday was less a mea culpa than a sales pitch.
“The product is good,” Obama said, apparently worried that bad reviews of the Web site would sour Americans even further on Obamacare, which polls show has a poor image.
The botched rollout, which Obama described as plagued by “kinks,” gave an opening to Republicans stung by coming off second-best in the shutdown drama.
US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who has long blasted Obamacare as a “train wreck,” wove a wider parable of supposed failures encompassing the whole of the healthcare law, which targets 40 million Americans without health insurance.
“What the president offered today was little more than self-congratulation,” Boehner said.
“Either the president doesn’t grasp the scale of the law’s failures, or he doesn’t believe Americans deserve straight answers,” he added.
Obama said the law is “more than a Web site” and cited popular provisions, including the prohibition on insurance firms denying coverage to someone with pre-existing health conditions.
The US Department of Health and Human Services has ordered a “surge” of technology experts to repair the Web site and said Americans can also register by telephone, but it still will not say how many people have secured insurance through the new law.
How badly Obama and his signature domestic achievement are damaged may depend on how quickly the fixes are made.
If problems linger, Obama will face mounting calls to delay the mandate for all Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine equivalent to 1 percent of their income. The regulation is due to come into force next year.