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Politics

Sebelius defends shaky Obamacare website in Tampa visit

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Published:   |   Updated: October 9, 2013 at 09:42 AM

TAMPA — President Barack Obama's top health official acknowledged that the administration didn't adequately anticipate the crush of applicants for the federal health care program but said she is confident “in the very near future we will have it flowing smoothly.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius visited Tampa on Tuesday to urge those eligible to sign up for insurance provided under the Affordable Care Act. But the subject quickly turned to problems with the marketplace's website.

Healthcare.gov has been plagued with delays, glitches and outright crashes since going online Oct. 1. Technicians are working around the clock to improve the site.

“The website is a lot better today than yesterday, and it will be a lot better very quickly,” she told reporters and health care executives gathered at the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation downtown.

The site had 10 million hits in its first week.

“I'm thrilled at the level of interest,” Sebelius said. “Should we have predicted it? Maybe we could have done a better job.”

She said the site is receiving five to six times more simultaneous users than a similar site, Medicare.gov.

“Yeah, we should have probably had projections way beyond that, and I think it's an indication that people have been waiting a very long time for affordable care.”

Sebelius said she could not disclose how many consumers have enrolled. Such federal data is released on a monthly basis, she said.

Those eligible have until Dec. 15 to enroll for coverage that starts Jan. 1, but the open enrollment period stretches to March.

It was Sebelius' second visit to Tampa in two months. In August, she presented USF Health's Covering Kids & Families program with $4.2 million to train “navigators” in the insurance enrollment process. She said Florida garnered the administration's attention because the state has one of the highest rates of uninsured residents in the nation at 23 percent.

Michelle Ray, a lead navigator for the USF group, said Tuesday it now has 89 people in the pipeline to become navigators, 25 of them fully licensed. The USF group fielded 140 inquiries about the health care program, often referred to as “Obamacare,” by Friday.

“We've been busy, and I think that's going to continue,” Ray said.

Also appearing at Tuesday's discussion were a pair students who stand to benefit from the insurance marketplace. Christopher Dawson, a USF senior majoring in public health, said he aged out of a plan that had covered him as he grew up with his grandparents. Savanah Goodland, studying public policy and administration at St. Petersburg College, discussed waiting tables on a broken foot that she could not afford to treat.

“I had to rely on Google and YouTube and luck to get better,” Goodland said. “I'm really excited because this prospect of finally being able to get insurance through the marketplace is great.”

During the panel discussion, Sebelius also urged the Florida Legislature to expand the state's Medicaid program, saying the state is leaving $51 billion in federal money on the table over the next decade. The issue died in last spring's legislative session, leaving nearly two million Floridians who could have been covered in the lurch.

“The offer is on the table,” Sebelius said. “It is fully paid for within the Health Care Act. This doesn't add a dime to the deficit. We are hopeful that the conversations here in Florida will continue about Medicaid expansion.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7834

To register for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, visit www.healthcare.gov or call (800) 318-2596.

For advice or to set up an appointment for face-to-face local assistance, call (813) 995-1066.

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