Exasperated White House Press Secretary Jay Carney today declared, "I give up" in response to questions from ABC News' Jonathan Karl about whether the White House mislead Americans by claiming they could bypass the problem-plagued HealthCare.gov website and sign up for coverage over the phone.
In a heated exchange during the White House daily briefing, Carney accused Karl of speaking in "tones of dramatic revelation" and launching into a "soliloquy" when asking about new memos released by the Government Reform Committee revealing that no matter how one applies, all consumer information must be put into the glitch-ridden website before they can enroll.
"In response to the troubles that users were having online - the unacceptable troubles that they were having - we bulked up the staffing of the call centers and made it possible for individuals to call and enroll and, you know, to sign up, and bypass, most importantly, the creation of an account so that could be handled by the call-in centers," Carney explained. "These applications are then processed through healthcare.gov, and we're working to fix healthcare.gov."
Carney insisted the White House "never pretended otherwise."
In a Rose Garden event last month, President Obama claimed that "you can bypass the website and apply by phone or in person" and that the process to apply via phone usually takes "about 25 minutes for an individual to apply for coverage, about 45 minutes for a family."
Pressed further by Karl about the president's comments, Carney responded, "Jon, I get it!"
"You call up, you give your information, you get the questions answered that you need answered, and then it's - they take over from there. And then you find out, you know, what you're eligible for and the process goes forward," he said.
But when do people actually enroll? Karl asked.
"When their paperwork is processed through healthcare.gov," Carney said.
Here is the full transcript of their exchange.
KARL: Jay, as I'm sure you remember, the president went in the Rose Garden on October 21st and talked about troubles with the website and said, you can bypass the website and apply by phone or in person, and even said that once you get somebody on the phone, you can - it usually takes about 25 minutes for an individual to apply, 45 minutes for a family.
New - memos released by the Government Reform Committee show that the CMS was talking about how the very same issues were affecting written applications, phone applications. In fact, one of the memo says, at the end of the day, we are all stuck in the same queue because all those applications have to go through the website. Have to go through the same computer system.
Did the president know that the very same problems would be facing consumers when they called on the phone, when he said they could apply in 25 minutes?
CARNEY: Well, Jon, as you know, the answer is yes, as was reported widely at the time. The whole point is that CMS is processing paper applications through healthcare.gov, but it bypasses the need to create an account.
And creating an account is what led to the bulk of issues for users in the initial days.
Initially, on the launch of the marketplaces on October 1st, you were not able to do that by phone. And in response to the troubles that users were having online - the unacceptable troubles that they were having, we bulked up the staffing of the call centers and made it possible for individuals to call and enroll and - you know, to sign up, and bypass, most importantly, the creation of an account so that could be handled by the call-in centers.
These applications are then processed through healthcare.gov, and we're working to fix healthcare.gov. But in terms of the user experience, the whole point was to alleviate the frustration that so many Americans were having online and to take that frustration away from them and allow a live person at a call-in center to handle their questions and their sign-ups and their enrollment for them.
So I know this - I know it's spoken in tones of dramatic revelation, but it was a known fact at the time.
KARL: (Inaudible crosstalk)
CARNEY: We never pretended otherwise, so I think, as you know - because I know you've talked to people about this - that, you know, this is - the whole point was to beef up the call-in centers to give - the American people were looking for information - a way to avoid some of the frustrations they were having online.
KARL: But Jay, I want to go back to exactly -
CARNEY: That would be that tone I'm talking about. (Laughter.)
KARL: I wanted to go back to exactly what the president said. He said you can bypass the website and apply by phone or in-person, and that it can be done in 25 minutes. But these memos say that at the end of the day, we are all stuck in the same queue, because they all have to go through the same portal.
CARNEY: Jon, I get it, but the person who calls isn't the one who continues to wait after the application is filled, right?
KARL: Your mocking is entertaining, but the president said that we - you could apply within 25 minutes. That was not true.
CARNEY: The work that you do - (chuckles) - I think everyone else is looking quizzically because there's a reason to be quizzical here. You call up, you give your information, you get the questions answered that you need answered, and then it's - they take over from there. And then you find out, you know, what you're eligible for and the process goes forward. Once you're -
KARL: OK, in 25 minutes?
CARNEY: No, once your process - you know, once your application is processed. The point was to relieve some of the frustration that Americans were understandably experiencing. And -
KARL: But what's the part that takes 25 minutes? Maybe you could clarify that.
CARNEY: The - well, you're - if it's an individual, roughly - this is on average - the interaction you have when you give the information in order - and you bypass the creation of an account and you sign up so that you didn't have to do that online. And then to enroll, obviously you would - that, you know, you would give in the information you need. That would be processed. You would find out how much you qualified for and you could be enrolled that way.
KARL: But, Jay, what -
CARNEY: But obviously - but, Jon, we have never said that you wouldn't - that the process - the end point of the process wouldn't still have to go through healthcare.gov. So this is not -
KARL: Actually, that's not true, Jay. Look at your own words on October 21st, the same day. You said: You can enroll over the phone. You can enroll in person.
KARL: On October 23rd you said there are four ways to enroll in the exchanges. You didn't say they all have to go on healthcare.gov. You said there are four ways to enroll in the exchanges -
CARNEY: Jon you don't have to go through healthcare.gov.
KARL: - by phone, in person, at local health centers or by mail or the website. You said there were four different ways. There's only one way. It all has to go through, as you just said, healthcare.gov.
CARNEY: I'm saying - what I said and what everybody said - and again, you know, you can - I - you can have this -
KARL: I was here.
CARNEY: - soliloquy by yourself, but the -
KARL: No, I'm trying to understand why the president gave the American public the impression that they can imply - they could apply - not impression, told people they can apply in 25 minutes?
CARNEY: They can get on the phone and call and the paperwork is filled out for them and the process is taken over from there.
KARL: When do they enroll?
CARNEY: When the - when their paperwork is processed through healthcare.gov. But they don't have to go online to do it, is the point, Jon. That was the whole purpose of while we are fixing the website, making it meet the standards that we set, that Americans had this alternative way with beefed up staffing and new rules allowing the call-in centers to do this - the individuals on the call-in centers to do this, to provide that relief to Americans who are frustrated by the experience.
I think you - I'm not sure what you think you've discovered here, Jon (sp), but I mean, you were asking me - yes, I am.
KARL: - the president said you can bypass the website? Because you just said that it all has to go through the website. So which is it?
CARNEY: Jon, I think we've been through this. The - you call -
KARL: We haven't. This is -
CARNEY: - you have an experience with - you have a conversation with somebody in the call-in center. You give them your information. They process it for you. They bypass the creation of an account, which is where most of the bottlenecks were happening for users on the website. Eventually that still has to go through HealthCare.gov, but you've done the work with -
KARL: - the eventually part.
CARNEY: Jon, I give up. Yes.
KARL: Well, let me - one more thing, from Kathleen Sebelius. Tell me if this was accurate. This was October 24th. She said out of the Phoenix call center, a person on the other end of the phone can get questions answered up to - in up to 150 languages as well as walk somebody all the way through the process and enroll at the end of the day.
CARNEY: Right, at the end of the day. You give everybody - you give somebody your information. When you call up and sign up for something right now, Jon, and somebody takes your information and they process that, they process whatever it is you're signing up for and enrolling in, you know, they can do that once you're off the phone. You don't have to stay on the phone. That's the point is to relieve Americans who are frustrated by the - their own - all right.
KARL: But you could enroll at the end of the day. Is that right?
CARNEY: Jon, I think everybody else here understands what I'm saying. I'm sorry I can't say the same for you.