NEW: Treasury audit warns of possible Obamacare subsidy fraud
President Obama says the health care website works, reforms are "here to stay"
His remarks kick off a public relations offensive for Obamacare
Republicans continue relentless attacks on the 2010 Affordable Care Act
Stop worrying about the website and start talking about Obamacare’s benefits.
That was President Barack Obama’s message to the nation on Tuesday as he kicked off a three-week public relations blitz intended to generate more participation in his signature health care reforms.
A day after officials declared the previously dysfunctional HealthCare.gov website working smoothly for most users, Obama held a White House event to try to shift the focus of a fiercely partisan public debate to how much help the 2010 Affordable Care Act offers Americans in need.
He noted the botched website launch of October 1 set back implementation of the reforms, and encouraged supporters to help him reintroduce the law to a still skeptical nation.
“Our poor execution in the first couple months on the website clouded the fact that there are a whole bunch of people who stand to benefit,” Obama said. “Now that the website’s working for the vast majority of people, we need to make sure that folks refocus on what’s at stake here.”
The administration hopes the new ability of HealthCare.gov to handle 800,000 users a day or more without major problems signals a major step forward in getting people to sign up for health coverage now required by law under the reforms.
However, officials including Obama, warn that glitches will persist and describe the website as a work in progress.
In another potential problem disclosed Tuesday, a Treasury inspector general audit cited possible security weaknesses against potential fraud by people getting government subsidies under Obamacare to lower their health insurance costs.
The Internal Revenue Service, which will enforce compliance with the law’s mandate to obtain health coverage, responded that it continues to develop systems to detect and prevent fraud involving subsidies when recipients file their 2014 tax returns.
Meanwhile, insurance companies say some “back-end” aspects of the HealthCare.gov system continued to malfunction. In particular, insurers cite problems with applications from people who signed up through the website, including erroneous or missing information.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said tech experts were working on the processing problems, offering assurances they would be fixed in time for enrollment starting on January 1, 2014.
“We’re confident that they’ll be able to achieve that,” Carney said.
Critics, led by conservative Republicans trying to dismantle the health care reforms known as Obamacare, say the website problems foreshadow deeper failings of the law that passed with no GOP support.
“It’s not just a broken website; this bill is fundamentally flawed,” House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday, later adding that “when you look at Obamacare, what you see is a government-centered health care delivery system.”
Americans don’t want that, the Ohio Republican insisted, declaring they instead “want to be able to pick their own type of health insurance, they want to be able to pick their own doctor and they want to be able to pick their own hospital.”
Obama challenged Boehner and other Republicans to come up with something better instead of simply opposing and trying to obstruct the implementation of Obamacare.
“We may never satisfy the law’s opponents,” he told an audience of supporters at the White House, including embattled Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department oversees the reforms.
The President listed specific benefits, such as an end to lifetime caps on coverage and denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Because of Obamacare, parents can keep their children on family policies up to age 26, and people can get free mammograms and other screening.
Now, he said, the 1 million visitors to HealthCare.gov on Monday showed the robust public interest in new health insurance exchanges under the reforms.
“Some have already convinced themselves that the law has failed, regardless of the evidence,” Obama said, prompting applause when he rejected Republican efforts to delay or dismantle the reforms.
“We’re not repealing it as long as I’m President,” he said, adding “We’re not going to walk away from it. If I’ve got to fight another three years to make sure this law works, then that’s what I’ll do.”
In a blog post on Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that more than 1.46 million people have been added to Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program rolls due to expanded services under the health care reforms.
The Affordable Care Act offered states additional federal funding to offer Medicaid and CHIP coverage to more low-income Americans. So far, 24 states and the District of Columbia have accepted the expansion funding while three others are still deciding and 23 have declined.
More events will occur daily through December 23, the deadline for people to get coverage that will take effect on January 1.
A new-found confidence
Over the weekend, officials announced they had met their self-imposed November 30 deadline for getting the site working for the “vast majority” of users, saying response times and error rates had been slashed while capacity increased.
Jeffrey Zients, a former administration official brought in to oversee the website fixes after its launch, compared the hardware upgrades so far to widening a highway on-ramp from two lanes to four.
That means chronic breakdowns, error messages and delays users experienced two months ago when the website went live have mostly disappeared, he said, noting the average response time was less than 1 second and the system’s “uptime” – a measure of system stability – was consistently surpassing 90%.
It all means that HealthCare.gov can now handle its original intended volume of 50,000 concurrent users for a total of 800,000 visitors a day, according to Zients.
A new component that put users in a waiting queue during periods of high volume provided a better-managed delay than the site freezes and error messages of October.
The waiting queue also asked users if they wanted to receive an e-mail notifiying them when they could try again at the front of the line.
According to an HHS official, 13,000 people requested an e-mail and 60% of them – roughly 7,800 – later returned after getting the email notification.
Not all roses in the Rose Garden
Vocal throughout the launch of the program and the successive problems, the GOP stayed vigilant with its critique.
“President Obama and his administration repeatedly claimed the Obamacare website would be fully functioning by the end of November, but this has proven to be just another broken promise,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday. “The Obama administration had over three years to build HealthCare.gov, and all they’ve produced is a non-functioning website, wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.”
In October, the first month of a six-month enrollment period, just over 106,000 people signed up for Obamacare. Less than 27,000 of them did so through the HealthCare.gov website, which was supposed to be the main enrollment portal.
An administration official familiar with the matter told CNN that about 100,000 people signed up for coverage last month on the site. The official cautioned the number was preliminary and final numbers would be released in mid-December.
Joanne Peters, a Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said enrollment through alternate channels and successful exchanges in 14 states would help bolster November figures.
Initial enrollment figures lower than hoped
Marilyn Tavenner, the official charged with implementing Obamacare as director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told a congressional hearing last month that the administration initially hoped to enroll 800,000 people by the end of November. The overall enrollment target by the March 31 deadline for 2014 is 7 million.
A properly functioning HealthCare.gov is crucial to implementing the most vital provisions of the health law that require people to have health coverage.
The coming months will show if it was successful.
CNNMoney’s Tami Luhby Jason Hanna, and CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Ed Payne contributed to this report.