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HHS to Media: Help Us on Obamacare Launch

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As the government was in the process of shutting down at the same time the launch of Obamacare was underway, a top Health and Human Services Department official found herself imploring the news media for help.

Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, ran a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, many of whom were preparing stories on the new state health insurance exchanges that later in the day would barrage readers with such negative headline words as “beset by glitches” and “frustrated applicants.”

Tavenner said the federal Healthcare.gov website in its first 15 hours had received 2.8 million visitors, “seven times more than have ever been on Medicare.gov,” she said. Yes, there were glitches, as happens with any new product, and they were quickly fixed with new capacity and other adjustments, she said.  HHS call centers had received 81,000 calls, and the online live chat lines 60,000.

“This has been three years of policy and operations coming together, which has never been done before,” she said. “It’s a tremendous beginning."

Judging by the experience in Massachusetts, which has run a health insurance plan since 2006 that is similar to the exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, people tend to check out their options before enrolling, Tavenner said.  Since they have until Dec. 15, HHS is not prepared on the first day to release enrollment numbers, she said.

On average the 36 state exchanges HHS is helping run offer 53 insurance plans to choose from, she said.

To reporters’ skeptical questions, Tavenner said, “We’re in a marathon, not a sprint. And we need your help.”

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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