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Obama to call healthcare website glitches 'unacceptable' as fix sought

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as "Obamacare", gather outside the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Ja
Supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as "Obamacare", gather outside the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Ja

By Jeff Mason and Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will declare the glitches in a new healthcare website "unacceptable" on Monday and outline ways for consumers to sign up for insurance while his team scrambles to fix problems that have tainted the rollout of his signature healthcare law.

Fresh from two weeks of budget battles that have consumed Washington, Obama will hold an event at 11:25 a.m. (1525 GMT) in the White House Rose Garden with consumers, small business owners, and pharmacists who have been affected by the new law.

The move is the highest-profile step in a broad damage control effort that the administration has launched since technical problems with the website, healthcare.gov, have prevented Americans nationwide from signing up for a program that will largely define Obama's domestic policy legacy.

"The president will directly address the technical problems with HealthCare.gov - troubles that he and his team find unacceptable - and discuss the actions he has pushed for to make it easier for consumers to comparison shop and enroll for insurance while work continues around the clock to improve the website," a White House official said on Sunday.

The president will say the product itself and the goal behind it - insuring millions of uninsured Americans - are good despite the problems that have plagued its rollout.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a blog post it was bringing in a "tech surge" of people from inside and outside government to help iron out glitches in the online insurance exchanges that are a central part of the program known as "Obamacare," which launched on October 1.

Obama's event, the HHS blog, and comments from Democrats on Sunday television news shows demonstrated a full-on push to offset criticism from Republicans and opponents of the law who say its rollout is representative of wider issues.

Republicans in Congress have chastised Obama's top health adviser, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, for declining their invitation to testify about the glitches to an oversight panel on October 24.

Officials stressed on Sunday that the problems were being addressed.

"I think that there's no one more frustrated than the president at the difficulty in the website," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Obama told aides in a recent Oval Office meeting that the administration had to take responsibility for the fact that the website was not ready on time.

Administration officials are expected to travel the country in the coming weeks to encourage people to sign up on the exchanges, targeting areas where there are high percentages of uninsured, according to one official.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is expected to provide private health coverage to an estimated 7 million uninsured Americans through the new online marketplaces that opened for enrollment in all 50 states on October 1.

But the website, the administration's online portal for consumers in 36 states, was hobbled by problems including error messages, garbled text and delays loading pages.

COMMITTED TO DOING BETTER

Administration officials blame the problems partly on an unexpectedly high volume of visitors in its first 10 days. According to HHS, there were more than 19 million visits to the website.

"We are committed to doing better," the department said in its blog post on Sunday.

Despite the problems, it said, other parts of the system were functioning well.

"Individuals have been able to verify their eligibility for credits, enabling them to shop for, and enroll in, low- or even no-cost health plans," the department said.

"We have updated the site several times with new code that includes bug fixes. Our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering."

Late on Saturday the White House reported nearly half a million Americans had applied for health insurance through the federal and state exchanges provided by Obamacare.

Many Republicans were criticizing the program long before its rocky launch. A 16-day partial government shutdown that ended last week was precipitated by Republican demands to delay or defund Obamacare.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who led that campaign, vowed on Sunday to step-up his opposition, even though his tactics have been called a mistake by members of his own party.

"I would do anything, and will continue to do anything, to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare," Cruz said on ABC's "This Week."

Lew said the program's test would be in January, when the actual coverage starts for people who have enrolled by December 15.

"I think that if we get that right, everyone will regret that the early weeks were choppy on the website. But the test is: are people getting coverage and are they getting the care that they need? And we're confident we're going to be on track to do that," Lew said on NBC.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, acknowledged problems with the Obamacare launch, but said they should be understood in the context of the program's size.

"Any system that deals with that many millions of people frequently does have a glitch," Pelosi told ABC News' "This Week."

"It has to be fixed, but what doesn't have to be fixed is the fact that tens of millions more people had access to affordable quality health care and no longer will have a pre-existing condition bar you from getting affordable health care."

Obama said in an interview with National Public Radio on October 1 that he was prepared for some problems in the early months of Obamacare as healthcare exchanges were launched.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Margaret Chadbourn, David Morgan, and Steve Holland; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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