WASHINGTON — President Obama conceded Monday that technical "kinks" had bedeviled the rollout of the federal healthcare website, but said the administration had launched a "tech surge" to fix it and emphasized that the law would give uninsured Americans access to reasonably priced, quality insurance.
"Nobody is 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," Obama told supporters in the Rose Garden. But he insisted: "The product, the health insurance, is good. The prices are good. It is a good deal. People don't just want it; they're showing up to buy it."
With the shutdown and debt limit crisis past, Washington's attention has turned to persistent problems with the website, which processes enrollments for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. But the site — healthcare.gov — has been plagued since it opened Oct. 1 by glitches that threaten to overshadow Obama's signature domestic accomplishment.
The president relaunched his campaign to sell the law as Republicans announced plans for hearings on the balky website. A Gallup poll last week found that 7 out of 10 uninsured Americans were "not too familiar" or "not familiar at all" with the online marketplaces.
Administration officials initially claimed the problems were caused by the unexpectedly high volume of visitors to the federal portal, which serves consumers in 36 states. Obama acknowledged that the website needed to work "better, faster, sooner," but did not explain what went wrong or when it would work properly. He said "some of the best IT talent in the entire country" was part of a "tech surge" to fix it.
Residents in the other states, including California, Connecticut and Kentucky, shop on state-run marketplaces, which have fared better. But even the Covered California website has endured technical glitches. Many consumers in the state have expressed concern about signing up before the exchange fixes its online directory of doctors and hospitals for the health plans. The provider search tool has been offline since Oct. 9 while the state tries to resolve its problems.
Even as the president sought to reassure Americans, a consensus appears to be growing among tech experts that the online marketplace has fundamental flaws that could take months to repair. Their concerns have been heightened by the Obama administration's refusal to explain the issues in detail.
Administration officials said Monday that they had upgraded the system for authenticating the identity of consumers who set up online accounts to better handle the high volume. They also identified bugs in the application process that caused timeouts, delays and other error messages.
The officials declined to provide additional information, but emphasized that some consumers had successfully enrolled. Nationwide, the administration reported that nearly half a million applications for coverage had been submitted through the state and federal insurance marketplaces.
The troubled rollout of the healthcare law's website has armed Republican critics with new ammunition and made it difficult for Obama to dismiss their denunciations as politically motivated.
"They're going to be looking to go after it even harder," he acknowledged, but he also said, "It's time for folks to stop rooting for its failure because hard-working, middle-class families are rooting for its success."
On Capitol Hill, Republicans see a chance to rebound from their shutdown debacle by highlighting the botched rollout.
"Obamacare's problem is larger than a website failure, and it will take more than a 'tech surge' to fix it," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said in a statement. "The website does serve as stark evidence that the federal government is ill-equipped to centrally manage our nation's healthcare."
On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee plans a hearing on "implementation failures" with testimony from federal contractors engaged with the website.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius "intended to testify," but had a conflict, said spokeswoman Joanne Peters. She was scheduled to be in Phoenix, but officials declined to say why.
The committee's chairman, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), called her decision "wholly unacceptable." Sebelius is expected to testify at another hearing before the committee next week. "We were told repeatedly that implementation was 'on track,' and it is now time for all those responsible to explain what happened," Upton said in a statement. "As the administration continues to withhold important details and enrollment figures, I hope Secretary Sebelius is ready to give answers and finally live up to the president's celebrated claims of transparency."
Many health policy experts say the administration took too long to make key decisions on the website and failed to test it soon enough. But the Obama administration has recently conceded deeper technical problems. Insurance companies have reported that they are not consistently getting accurate data about consumers enrolling in their plans.
Among the major design flaws was the requirement that consumers create an online account before they could compare insurance plans, creating a bottleneck that may have caused long wait times. The Obama administration has changed that feature to allow shoppers on the federal site to "window shop."
Such design flaws are relatively easy to address, said Bill Curtis, chief scientific officer at CAST, a New York-based firm that analyzes information technology systems. "They will get past that," he said.