Obama hits road to Boston, pleading patience on healthcare woes

President Obama will defend his signature healthcare law in Boston on Wednesday, looking to placate concerns over a rocky rollout by pointing to Massachusetts's early struggle to enroll consumers in their universal coverage.

The first month of ObamaCare open enrollment has been plagued by technical issues, leading to a string of bad headlines and tough questions for the White House. Many uninsured consumers who want to enroll have been stymied by a glitchy website and back-end technical problems.

ADVERTISEMENT
But in remarks from Faneuil Hall — the 18th century marketplace where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) signed his state's insurance law — Obama appears set to argue that the American people shouldn't read too much into the administration's stumble out of the gate.

David Simas, a White House deputy senior adviser responsible for aspects of the healthcare rollout, said the Massachusetts law demonstrated an "arc of enrollment" by which consumers tended to wait until the last minute to buy health insurance. 

He said that in Massachusetts, only 123 enrollees signed up in the first month health plans were offered. A fifth of eventual enrollees added coverage in the last month enrollment was available.

"Many healthy people waited until that last minute to sign up," said Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who advised both Obama and Romney on developing their healthcare laws.

By promoting the low number of initial sign-ups to the Massachusetts exchanges, the White House appears to be lowering expectations for early enrollments in ObamaCare plans. The administration has thus far declined to say how many individuals have successfully signed up for coverage, promising only a monthly update in the middle of November.

But Gruber emphasized on Tuesday that it would be "hard to evaluate in November, December [or] January where we end up."

The comparison also seems designed to disarm criticism that the technically challenged website would cripple the effort to get consumers to purchase health insurance. If too few consumers buy plans on the ObamaCare exchanges, premiums will rise across the board, and the law would struggle to take hold.

A White House official said the president was looking to “help set important perspective” about the state of the ObamaCare rollout, adding that the Massachusetts experience “offers important lessons for what we can expect.”

“Today, 97 percent of Massachusetts residents have health insurance coverage and the primary attacks against this law — many of which we are hearing again today about the ACA — never proved true,” the official said.

The president's event comes on the same day Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is slated to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to field questions from congressional Republicans for the first time about the website's struggles.

The White House official said that the president would provide an update on repairs to the troubled website, which again went offline on Tuesday night.

Jon Kingsdale, the founding executive director of the agency that implemented the Massachusetts law, noted that in his state's case, "we had to postpone a few things because we couldn't meet our deadlines."

"It's a marathon, not a sprint," he said.

Echoing the White House, Kingsdale looked to tamp down expectations for enrollments. Calling insurance purchases a "grudge buy," he said that the number of consumers browsing coverage vastly outpaces those  who actually purchase coverage.

"There's going to be a lot of browsing," he said.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans preemptively dismissed the president's speech as an attempt to wallpaper over systematic problems with his health care law.

"Every which way you look at it, ObamaCare has proven to be a train wreck – with problems that run far beyond its AOL-era website," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "A law that was delivered through a pack of fictitious promises can't be saved by another misleading speech."

The White House said Tuesday that attendees will include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), as well as state workers who help residents enroll in health coverage. One person who will not be present is Romney — the White House said they did not reach out to the former Republican presidential candidate.

Following his remarks, the president is expected to join House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) for a fundraiser at the home of Alan Solomont. 

Solomont, the a former Democratic National Committee finance chairman, served as Obama's ambassador to Spain through July of this year.