The Conversation

Carney Repeatedly Said You Could 'Enroll' in Obamacare by Phone

The President often says "let me be clear" in his speeches but in the case of his October 21st Rose Garden speech on Healthcare.gov he was not clear. His spokesperson Jay Carney was even less clear the same day. In fact he was just wrong.

During Monday's press briefing Jon Karl challenged Jay Carney over the idea that people could enroll for Obamacare by phone. Karl asked Carney why the President said people could call the 800 number and sign up in 25 minutes when phone applications eventually have to be transmitted through Healthcare.gov.

Carney responded that the President's statement about phone applications was intended to bypass the account creation bug on the website. In other words, people could apply, i.e. have someone help them fill out a paper application. That does not mean they could enroll in that time.

Carney eventually became exasperated over Jon Karl's apparent confusion but he shouldn't have. I went back and looked at what the President and Carney had said about using the phone number. The President got it partly right in the Rose Garden but Carney clearly got it wrong. First, here's the President speaking October 21st:

Yesterday we updated the website's homepage to offer more information about the other avenues to enroll in affordable health care until the online option works for everybody. So you'll find information about how to talk to a specialist who can help you apply over the phone or to receive a downloadable application you can fill out yourself and mail in.

[...]

Once you get on the phone with a trained representative, it usually takes about 25 minutes for an individual to apply for coverage, about 45 minutes for a family. Once you apply for coverage, you'll be contacted by mail, by email or postal mail, about your coverage status.

What the President did not say is that choosing a plan an enrolling in one can not be done by phone. But the same day Carney completely mangled this point during the press briefing: [emphasis added]

on the website it prominently features a pathway to allow you to enroll through call centers.  As the President said and others have said, we have beefed up the staffing of call centers, HHS has, to ensure that the obvious high numbers of Americans who are interested in finding out about their insurance options have ways to do that and ways to enroll -- because there are four ways.  It’s not just online.  It’s by phone, in person, or by mail, in addition to online, to register and to enroll in these insurance options...

HHS and CMS have been taking the actions they’ve taken, have already introduced improvements to the website, have made clear to Americans across the country that there are ways to enroll through the toll-free number, in person, as well as by mail...

You can enroll over the phone.  You can enroll in person. 

The President was careful not to say that you could "enroll" through a call center. But Carney just got it wrong multiple times, making it sound as if you could go through the entire process by phone.

As the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff pointed out at the time, you can not enroll by phone. One operator told her "The only thing we can do is submit an application for you."

So what the President said was true but also substantially incomplete to the point of being misleading. Yes, you can apply by phone but then you'll just have to wait until some time in the future when the website is working to be able to enroll. It's not clear how that really helps anyone.

But what Carney said was simply wrong. You can not enroll by phone. Rather than get exasperated with Jon Karl, Carney should save it for the person who created the confusion in the first place. In other words, Carney should take it up with Jay Carney.


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