WASHINGTON — Despite the problems plaguing the rollout of Obamacare, the "core of the law" is working and "more than half a million Americans have enrolled" in health plans so far in December, President Obama said Friday.
"I'm in charge, obviously, we screwed it up," Obama said at a White House news conference, referring to the public's introduction to the new law. But, he said, "the bottom line also is that we've got – several million people are going to have health care that works."
Obama's statement that half a million people had signed up for health plans so far in December was the first accounting the administration has provided of figures for this month. Officials have said the pace of enrollment has accelerated as some problems of the HealthCare.gov website have been resolved. Americans who sign up for a health plan by Monday are supposed to receive coverage effective Jan. 1.
The President also sought to play down his administration's decision — announced Thursday night — to allow some Americans to avoid the law's requirement to buy insurance. Americans who have received notices that their existing health plans were being canceled and who have not bought replacement insurance will be allowed to claim a hardship exemption that would allow them to buy a bare-bones "catastrophic" health policy or skip buying insurance altogether next year, Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced in a letter to six senators, including New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen.
The low-cost plans are otherwise available only to some people younger than 30.
Shaheen said she was pleased with the Sebelius move.
"This clarifies an option that will help those consumers who have had their plans cancelled this year transition more smoothly into the marketplace," she said in a statement with the five other senators.
Shaheen added, "I want to make sure people in New Hampshire who have received cancellation notices can purchase affordable insurance. Having everyone covered by health insurance is important for families and the economy."
Shaheen continues to promote her broader bill that would extend the sign-up deadline for all individual policies beyond the current March 31 deadline, a spokesman said. That bill is still pending in the Senate.
Under Shaheen's "ACA Enrollment Extension Act," the Affordable Care Act would be amended to extend the open enrollment period until May 31. The bill also gives Sebelius authority to further extend the enrollment if the HealthCare.gov website continues to be less than fully functional.
Obama in November allowed individual policy holders whose plans were about to be cancelled to keep those plans for another year if their state insurance commissioners and insurance companies agreed.
"What we're talking about is a very specific population that received cancellation notices from insurance companies," Obama said. "We just wanted to make sure that the hardship provision that was already existing in the law would also potentially apply to somebody who had problems during this transition period."
Asked whether the government would enforce the law's requirement that people buy insurance, Obama replied "absolutely."
In fact, the law already includes a number of exemptions for people who cannot afford to buy health insurance or for other reasons are unable to obtain it. And even for those who do not qualify for an exemption, the penalty for not having insurance is relatively small, starting at $95.
Nonetheless, insurance companies have insisted that the requirement is needed to ensure that insurance remains affordable now that they no longer are able to exclude people from coverage who have existing health problems.
On Thursday, industry officials criticized the administration's plan for hardship exemptions, saying that it could confuse consumers and destabilize insurance marketplaces.
Obama's opponents have argued that the administration's frequent tinkering with the law's deadlines and requirements are a sign of fundamental flaws and also represent an excessive use of executive power to change a statute passed by Congress.
The president, however, said the changes are a sign that the process is working properly.
"I've said before that this is a messy process," he said, adding that he knew that some people ask "isn't the fact that it's been so messy some indication that there are more fundamental problems with the law?"
But, he said, "when you try to do something this big affecting this many people, it's going to be hard."
"What we are constantly doing is looking — is this working the way it's supposed to? — and if there are adjustments that can be made to smooth out the transition, we should make them," he said, adding that the shifts "don't go to the core of the law."