HHS Secretary Burwell touts Obamacare 2.0 in a visit to USF in Tampa

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Today marked the first weekday to sign up for the Affordable Care Act 2.0,  and while there were reports over the weekend of some people having problems logging on to the exchanges (in some cases those trying to re-enroll had trouble submitting or resetting passwords), they’ve been nothing to deter Obama administration officials generally good cheer about the program going into its second full year of implementation.

But that doesn’t mean the administration still isn’t on the offensive. This year’s version of a malfunctioning website comes from an adviser to the ACA, Jonathan Gruber. More on the former “Architect of the ACA” in a moment, but Health & Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell was full of optimism Monday morning while addressing reporters on the USF campus in Tampa.

“I will be cautious and say that 500,000 who logged in correctly, the vast majority had a good experience,” she said, referring to the half-million people HHS claims went on the HealthCare.gov marketplace on Saturday, the first day of open enrollment. “When there are things, and when we see things, we’re tracking them down. There will be problems. It is a large and complicated website.”

Last year, the much anticipated rollout of the ACA or “Obamacare” started out as a disaster for the White House, where problems plaguing the website dominated news coverage last fall.  That was followed up by the fact that despite the claims of President Obama, Tampa Congresswoman Kathy Castor and other Democrats that if they “liked their current plan they could keep it,” in fact there was a small percentage of people who were kicked off their  plan once the ACA became law.

That all happened under the leadership of the much maligned Kathleen Sebelius at HHS. Despite calls to fire her, President Obama stood by the former Kansas governor, who ultimately stepped down in April and was replaced by Burwell,  formerly the director of the Office of Management and Budget. In her opening remarks inside a room in the Marshall Center on the USF campus, she said the ACA was really about three things: affordability, access and quality.

Though hundreds of thousands logged on to HealthCare.gov this weekend, the Secretary said she had no hard numbers on how many had successfully signed up this time around. Mathews has said that by the time late enrollment commences early next year she’s hoping to have around 9 million people on the program. That’s down considerably from what the Congressional Office had predicted in 2015, where they estimated that 13 million would be on the ACA. But Burwell articulated to reporters today that the CBO “score” was a calculated estimate, and said earlier this year she asked her “team” at HHS to analyze what was a realistic figure for enrollees to the program this year. She says the 9 million figure comes from estimating that around 83 percent of those who signed on to the plan last year would re-enroll. Add around 28 percent of people currently on a employer based health care plan that would switch to the ACA (which she said was much smaller last year than anticipated), and that’s where she comes up with the 9 million figure.

Obamacare is and will probably always be controversial. While a Gallup poll shows the ACA at its nadir in terms of popularity with the American public at a lowly 37%, it’s actually rated much higher by those who actually have used the product. A Gallup survey released last Friday showed that over seven in 10 Americans who bought new health insurance policies through the government exchanges earlier this year rate the quality of their healthcare and their healthcare coverage as “excellent” or “good.”

As Gallup’s Frank Newport writes:

Americans who obtained new health insurance policies in 2014 using the government exchanges are roughly as positive about their healthcare coverage and the quality of healthcare they receive as the average insured American, and are more satisfied with the cost of their coverage. More than two-thirds of the newly insured who purchased coverage through federal or state exchanges intend to renew their exchange policies, while another 7% plan to look for a different policy through the exchanges.

But there has been a recent development that threatens the law’s future. The U.S. Supreme Court announced earlier this month that they will decide on how far the federal government can extend its program of subsidies to buyers of health insurance. Specifically the issue is whether or not the subsidies afforded to those who qualify for them is only allowed for the 16 states that run their own consumer marketplaces, and in the 34 other states in the country who don’t have their own ACA website (such as Florida).

Burwell had little to say on that issue other than there currently is no change in the law, adding that Congress didn’t intend for citizens in some states to get financial assistance but not in other states. “Those subsidies exist…right now” she repeated.

The HHS Secretary was also asked to offer an opinion about the now infamous Jonathan Gruber, the M.I.T. professor whose candid comments on the strategies behind the Administration’s passage of the Affordable Car Act have gone viral over the past week have become another nightmare for the White House to have to defend. In a series of now six video clips taken over the past few years, Gruber has discussed how the ACA was ultimately passed only because of a “lack of transparency” and relied on “the stupidity of the American voter.” He was an adviser to the White House in preparing the plan, and made nearly $400,000 in doing so.

Fox News originally broadcast that story, but it has quickly been picked up by the mainstream media, and every supporter of President Obama and/or the ACA has been running from Gruber ever since.

“Let me start out by saying how completely I disagree with those comments,” Secretary Burwell began when asked to address Gruber. “The issues of transparency are something that as the Secretary from the time I’ve been at HHS (I) thought as being very important. ” She then later went on to say that the ACA itself is about being transparent, referring to the “navigators” who were assisting students at USF today and are available to meet in person or on the telephone to give complete information to citizens trying to figure out how to get on the plan, and which plan works best for them. “It’s about providing that information – a marketplace. Shopping. Decision making. That’s what it’s about.”

Joining Burwell at USF was Tampa area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, Raymond Palter, the Florida Organizing Director with Enroll America, the national nonprofit group formed primarily to help sign up consumers for the ACA, and Jodi Ray, director of Florida Covering Kids & Families at the USF College of Public Health. In September that group received a $5.38 million Navigator grant – the largest award in the country and in Florida – to help enroll more eligible consumers and small businesses to the ACA.

The enrollment period for new users goes up to February 15.

Existing users will only have until December 15 to re-certify and make changes to their insurance.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.