Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 10/24/2013
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:47 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon. Thanks, everyone, for being here. I have a couple things. First, I wanted to note that this evening, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, both the White House North Portico and Naval Observatory Anchor will be lit pink. Breast cancer touches every corner of the United States. In 2013 alone, more than 230,000 women and over 2,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. And tens of thousands will die from this horrible disease.
Early detection can decrease the risk of death from breast cancer. And the President believes that everyone should have access to preventive services. Under the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance plans fully cover recommended screenings, and insurers are prohibited from setting lifetime dollar limits. And next year, insurance companies will no longer be able to put dollar limits on annual benefits or deny insurance because of preexisting conditions, such as breast cancer. The law is designed to give women everywhere the chance to take advantage of these free preventive services and apply for affordable coverage in their own state if they are uninsured.
Also before I take your questions, I just wanted to note that today is October 24th, and on this day a number of years ago, my mother was born, and I'd like to wish her a happy birthday.
Q All right!
MR. CARNEY: Happy birthday, Mom.
Q Happy birthday.
MR. CARNEY: See, I made sure I remembered Mom -- (laughter.)
So, with that, I'll take your questions. Nedra.
Q Thanks, Jay. I want to follow up on your comment in yesterday’s briefing about how the United States is not and will not monitor German Chancellor Merkel’s communications. Lawmakers in Berlin have objected to that answer because you didn’t say whether her communications were monitored in the past. So I want to ask you, has the United States monitored the Chancellor’s phone calls in the past?
MR. CARNEY: Nedra, we are not going to comment publicly on every specified, alleged intelligence activity. And as a matter of policy, we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations. As I mentioned yesterday, the President spoke with Chancellor Merkel, reassured her that the United States is not and will not monitor the Chancellor’s communications. And we have also said, broadly, that, at the President’s direction, we are reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share.
So I have nothing more for you on that except to say the President and the Chancellor spoke. I made clear what our policy is, and when it comes to specific allegations about intelligence matters, we have diplomatic relations and channels that we use in order to discuss these issues that have clearly caused some tension in our relationships with other nations around the world, and that is where we are having those discussions.
And we are also, at the President’s direction, engaged in a review of the way that we gather our intelligence and making sure that we properly balance the security concerns that we have and our allies have with privacy concerns of everyone.
Q Despite that phone call between the President and the Chancellor, she seems to still be pretty upset. She said today that trust with the United States now has to be built anew. And Germany’s Defense Minister is saying that Europe can't simply return to business as usual in the midst of these allegations. So is the White House concerned that not fully responding to these allegations has harmed the relationship?
MR. CARNEY: We have direct communications through diplomatic channels at the highest level and other levels with our very close allies in Germany, and the United States greatly values our close cooperation with Germany on a broad range of shared security challenges. And as the President has said, the United States is reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we achieve that balance that I spoke about.
Beyond that, I'm just not going to, in this case or in other cases, get into specific allegations that have been made in published reports. We're reviewing the way that we gather intelligence. We are discussing the issues that have caused tension, the reports that have caused tension in some of our relationships directly with the countries involved. And we're going to continue to do that.
Q And on the President's call today for immigration reform by the end of this year, that seems like a pretty ambitious goal given the calendar and politics right now. In fact, right after the President was done speaking, Speaker Boehner's office put out a statement objecting to the Senate bill that the President was advocating as massive, Obamacare-style legislation. So how difficult does the White House see passage of this legislation this year?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it was always going to be a challenge and it remains a challenge. But what is absolutely true, as the President said today, is that there is bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform. And there is broad support beyond Washington from corners that don't often come together in agreement on an issue, and that includes business and labor, law enforcement and faith communities. And there is a great deal of consensus behind the need to pass comprehensive immigration reform of the kind that has passed the Senate.
Now, how we get there through the House is obviously up to House leaders. And there are a variety of ways that you can reach the ultimate goal, which is a comprehensive bill that the President can sign into law. The House's approach will be up to the House. There is a comprehensive bill that House Democrats have put together that is similar to the Senate bill and reflects the President's principles. But the means by which we arrive at our destination is in some ways, of course, up to the lawmakers who control the houses of Congress.
But the destination is where I think there is a huge consensus that we need to get to -- which is a terrible sentence, but I will try again. There is a significant consensus around the idea that we need to arrive at comprehensive immigration reform that achieves the four objectives that the President has laid out. And business supports that, and labor supports that, and religious community leaders support that, law enforcement leaders support that. It's good for the economy.
Like I said yesterday, if Republicans need an explanation and an argument for why this is right, there are ample conservative arguments to make for comprehensive immigration reform, including establishing fair play for everyone, including enhancing our border security, including creating greater economic growth and causing further job creation. So there's a lot to recommend comprehensive immigration reform to Republicans and Democrats alike. And we hope, as the President said today, that the House will act and that we arrive at a point where a bill can land on the President's desk that he can sign into law. And that would be good for the economy and good for the middle class and the right thing to do.
Q But you acknowledge it will be difficult to do that?
MR. CARNEY: Absolutely, of course. None of this stuff is easy. Again, I think, noting an article that I alluded to yesterday, the suggestion that when the President went out and said we can and should try to achieve comprehensive immigration reform before the end of the year, we can and should try to achieve a budget deal before the end of the year, and we can and should try to achieve a bipartisan farm bill before the end of the year -- the suggestion that he laid those out because they were easy is obviously kind of ridiculous. These aren’t easy, but they’re important. And they are items that have earned bipartisan support already in Congress, and that alone suggests that there’s a way to get from where we are now to completion.
Q Jay, one of the contractors for healthcare.gov said on Capitol Hill today that the administration was warned in advance about risks of the rollout. Were those warnings not heeded?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jeff, as we’ve been discussing now for some time, we knew and said prior to October 1st that there would be some glitches or hiccups or problems with the rollout of a large-scale and complex website like healthcare.gov. But what we did not know was that we would encounter the kind of and scale of problems that we’ve seen. And that’s unacceptable. And that’s why the President and the Secretary have made sure that some of the best minds in the country, working with the existing teams, are tackling these problems and improving the website every day for the Americans who want to use it and for the millions of Americans who have demonstrated an interest in shopping for and enrolling in health insurance plans that are affordable for many of them for the first time in their lives.
Q Tying that question to immigration, Republicans in the House have said they don’t want to have a big immigration bill like Obamacare that nobody understands. Are you concerned at all the problems with healthcare.gov and with the rollout will affect the President’s ability to pass immigration reform?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as I said to Nedra, the fact of the matter is we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform because all of the four key components of it will help our economy increase and improve border security.
Q But the question is, will the Obamacare issues right now hurt that ability?
MR. CARNEY: There’s no connection between the Affordable Care Act and comprehensive immigration reform. And what I would remind Republican critics of it is that there is enormous support in communities across the country, including business communities and faith communities and law enforcement communities, for comprehensive immigration reform. I would also note that comprehensive immigration reform passed the Senate with significant Republican support, and I think there is a distinction to be drawn there with the Affordable Care Act.
I also don’t think that the idea that we should make affordable insurance available to millions of Americans through the existing private market is very complicated. There’s no question that the website is a big piece of business, and it’s challenging, and it’s not meeting the standards that the President wants it to meet and that the Secretary wants it to meet.
And that’s why we’re grinding away with these teams of tech experts to make fixes to the system so that the experience that consumers have every day improves every day, and that we can make sure that Americans across the country are getting the information they need so that they’re aware that there are four ways to apply and enroll for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, through these marketplaces. And the website is just one of them.
Q Can you envision a way, however, to get immigration reform passed and achieve the four objectives that the President has laid out without doing a big “comprehensive bill” like the Senate?
MR. CARNEY: Immigration reform needs to be comprehensive.
Q Can you get, can you achieve that --
MR. CARNEY: Well, if you’re asking --
Q -- in a piecemeal way that the House Republicans are supporting?
MR. CARNEY: I am not a Hill expert in terms of how the procedure works, but as I understand it, the Hill could -- the House could pass one or several bills related to immigration reform and that that could be conferenced with the Senate immigration bill. But in terms of what the President will sign, it’s got to be a comprehensive immigration reform bill and it has to meet the criteria it set.
It does not have to be word-for-word the way he would write it. That’s already the case with the Senate bill, and it’s already the case with the House version -- the House Democratic version. But in terms of what ultimately becomes law, yes, the President believes that the only way to get this done -- the way to make sure that we get the broad bipartisan support and the broad support from communities around the country is that it be comprehensive.
Let me move around. We had an experience -- oh, Kristen.
Q Jay, thanks.
MR. CARNEY: And then Chris.
Q Also on the hearing today, one of the contractors said that he wished that there had been more time to test the site. So just to get at that issue in another way, was the administration so wed to the October 1st launch site that you didn’t provide enough time for testing?
MR. CARNEY: Kristen, we’re focused not on Monday-morning quarterbacking, but on improving the access that Americans have to the information they need so that they can shop for and purchase affordable health insurance.
As I said yesterday, obviously tests were done, and what we learned upon launch is that the problems with the site were greater than we expected and anticipated, significantly, and that significant work needed to be done to fix those problems. And that’s what’s happening. We are still only three and a half weeks into a six-month process, and the teams that are in place are making progress every day. And we’re going to, as I said yesterday, make sure that information about the progress that’s being made is available to you through regular briefings at CMS and information that's being provided from the teams that are working on the improvements.
So our focus is on getting it right, because the endgame here is that -- the fact that there are problems with healthcare.gov is something that we acknowledge, and that's why we’re addressing it head on. The fact that some critics of the Affordable Care Act who have worked assiduously for years to try to do away with it, repeal it, defund it, sabotage it, are now expressing grave concern about the fact that the website isn’t functioning properly I think should be taken with a grain of salt. Because we’re focused on getting affordable health insurance to the American people. Some folks in Washington -- especially Republicans, of course, principally, or entirely Republicans -- have been focused on preventing that from happening.
Q This contractor, Jay, said that a system of this magnitude should require months of testing, and that that didn't happen. So I guess the question is why wasn’t there --
MR. CARNEY: Kristen, what I just said is there will be -- there are regular briefings at CMS where you can get your questions answered about the work that's being done to improve this.
The basis of your question goes to the heart of the matter: Should the website have been functioning more effectively on October 1st? The answer is yes. We acknowledge that. The President said that in the Rose Garden. We’re not satisfied; he’s not satisfied; Secretary Sebelius is not satisfied. The website is improving every day. The consumer experience is improving every day, incrementally. And what we’re focused on and what those teams are focused on is on making those improvements so that the goal here can be achieved, which is the availability of affordable health insurance to millions of Americans.
Q Does the President now think the launch date should have been pushed back, knowing what he knows now about the testing?
MR. CARNEY: Again, what the President believes is that the website should have been better functioning on October 1st.
What you’re asking me and what -- again, these questions stem from the general direction of people who wanted to either eliminate Obamacare or delay it so they could eliminate it later -- gets to the other heart of the matter which is how much longer do you ask Americans with preexisting conditions to go without health insurance? How much longer do you ask the single mom with breast cancer -- on the day that we light the White House and the Naval Observatory in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- how much longer do you ask her to go without health insurance, to go without coverage? And the answer is, the time is now, and it's available now.
From day one, Americans have been able to shop for, apply for and enroll in affordable health insurance plans. What is also true is that one portal through which they can do that has been inadequate and has functioned poorly, And we are fixing that every day.
Q Just one on Pakistan, Jay. Did President Obama give the Prime Minister yesterday any assurances or any indication that he would possibly be amenable to scaling back the drone attacks, or giving Pakistan more sort of advanced warning about when those attacks might occur at targets?
MR. CARNEY: Kristen, we obviously had an important meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan -- the President had one. It was a productive meeting here at the White House, and our relationship with Pakistan continues on a positive trajectory.
The meeting provided an opportunity for the leaders to discuss concrete cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as energy, trade and economic development, regional stability, and countering violent extremism. We want to advance our shared interest in a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan that is contributing to regional and international security and prosperity, and we want to find ways for our countries to cooperate.
As I've said in the past, obviously we don’t agree on everything with Pakistan, but it is important even where we have differences on some issues that we work together to cooperate where we can. And we have a strong ongoing dialogue with Pakistan regarding all aspects of our bilateral relationship and shared interests, including security and counterterrorism cooperation, and we work together to address concerns that Pakistan has in these areas.
So all the issues are on the table when these leaders meet. And the meeting yesterday was very productive, as was the series of meetings that were held during the course of the Prime Minister's visit.
Q Jay, is there some naiveté on the part of some of our allies --
MR. CARNEY: Naiveté?
Q -- when it comes to intelligence-gathering by friends? Doesn’t the U.S. assume that some of our allies might be trying to find out what we're up to, just as we might be trying to find out what our allies are up to? Are precautions taken for the President, with every phone call that he makes on his cell phone or any other communication, to protect those communications? You know, isn't it a “buyer beware” kind of situation for our allies?
MR. CARNEY: Mark, what I would say is that we acknowledge that the United States gathers intelligence much as other nations gather foreign intelligence. The revelations that have appeared of late have obviously caused tensions in our relationships with some countries, and we are dealing with that set of issues through diplomatic channels. And we are also, as the President has said clearly and publicly, engaged in a review of our intelligence-gathering operations with an eye to the need to find a balance between our security needs and the security needs of our allies, on the one hand, and the privacy concerns that everyone shares.
So I think that’s the broad way to answer your question, the first part, is that we obviously gather foreign intelligence much as other nations do.
Q Do you see these expressions of outrage by foreign leaders more for domestic consumption than it is because they’re shocked and appalled that there’s intelligence-gathering going on?
MR. CARNEY: Mark, I would say that we have, when it comes to Germany and some other nations that we’ve discussed broadly in relation to this issue, we have enormously important and valuable and deep friendships and alliances with countries that require us to take very seriously concerns that are expressed. And we do that in leader-to-leader conversations and in the conversations that we have at every level in our diplomatic relations. These are very important relations for the United States -- economically, in terms of national security -- and we will, of course, work to maintain the strongest possible ties with our closest allies.
Mara, and then Christie.
Q Can you just clarify the Dick Durbin situation? Yesterday it seemed like you were throwing him under the bus, but now it seems more complicated.
MR. CARNEY: Let me just say that yesterday I was simply saying that the quote attributed to a Republican lawmaker in the House GOP meeting with the President was not accurate. I wasn’t accusing anybody of anything. And what I can tell you is that there was a miscommunication when the White House read out that meeting to Senate Democrats, and we regret the misunderstanding.
Q So you led -- somebody here led him to believe --
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get into either private meetings between congressional leaders and the President, or private meetings between White House officials and members and leaders of Congress. We tend not to read out private conversations. But what I will say is that the quote attributed to the lawmakers was not accurate, but there was a miscommunication in the readout of that meeting between the White House and Senate Democrats, and we regret that.
We’re, again, focused on trying to find areas of common ground with lawmakers of both parties to move the American people’s agenda forward.
Q I have a question on immigration, but if I could follow up on that for just a minute. Is there a logical explanation for how that miscommunication happened? Was there a member, for example, who refused to look at the President in a meeting?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I’m not going to read out the conversations or the body language of the private meetings between the President and lawmakers. What was important about that meeting is that it took place at a time when Republicans in the House chose to shut down the government over an ideological pursuit.
And the issues that were discussed in that meeting, as was the case in every meeting that the President had with House and Senate Democrats and Republicans, had to do with how we need to reopen the government and how we needed to make sure that we did not default for the first time in our history, and how the decision to shut down the government and the decision to flirt with default was doing measurable harm to the American economy and measurable harm to the American people, as Jason Furman documented the other day. So that was the substance and importance of all those meetings.
Q Has anybody from the White House asked Senator Durbin to take down that Facebook --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think that what I can say about this is what I've said. We've got a lot of important business to do in this town on behalf of the American people and we look forward to getting at it.
Q On immigration, can you say how and when the President got to the point he was on this morning where he wasn't just insisting on passage of the Senate bill, but rather inviting ideas from House Republicans? Is that something new? Do you think that -- is that a new?
MR. CARNEY: I think that he has been keeping with where he has always been on this issue and others. I mean, one of the great things about this issue is that there has been significant bipartisan cooperation. And that just doesn't mean -- or that doesn't just mean Republicans signing up for a Democratic proposal. It means Democrats and Republicans working together, as they did in the Senate, putting all their ideas on the table and putting together a comprehensive piece of legislation that reflected everyone's interests and everyone's input. And that's the bipartisan nature at its core of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate.
And we believe that should a bill like that be allowed to get an up or down vote on the floor of the House that there would be a majority in the House in support of it, and that that majority would be made up of Democrats and Republicans.
And there is just an enormous number of positive reasons to be for this, and they're economic and they're about our competitiveness, and they're about law and order and security. And they're about -- if, for those who care about these things -- and I know, disproportionately, in Washington, there are people who care about these things -- they're also about the need for the Republican Party to, as John Boehner has said, the Speaker of the House, to address this issue; as Chairman Ryan has said -- Paul Ryan has said, that the Republican Party needs to tackle this issue. And we think those sentiments reflect what we've been saying all along, which is that there is a real opportunity here for bipartisan cooperation.
Q Following up on that point, he said this morning, I'll be listening. If there are ideas, I’ll be listening.
MR. CARNEY: He will be.
Q Does the President envision a framework whereby he would be involved in those conversations?
MR. CARNEY: Sure. Well, Christie, I would say that he has been all year long, and we've documented some of the conversations and meetings that he has said on this issue with Republicans. And as I've said many times, we don't read out every meeting and conversation that he has with lawmakers, but this has been a major priority of the President’s all year long, and it continues to be. And he will continue to be engaged with Republicans and Democrats in the effort to try to get this from where it is to its final destination, which is passed and signed into law.
So you should believe the President when he says he wants this done by the end of the year. And is it difficult? Absolutely. Is it possible? Yes. And we’ve seen that it’s possible because of the bipartisan support in the Senate, the general bipartisan support for the idea of comprehensive immigration reform even in the House, and the broad consensus across the country in support of the idea.
Q First, if I could follow up on that, is there any specific Republican in the House he’s been working with on this in recent weeks?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think in recent weeks we’ve been dealing with the Republican decision to shut down the government and threaten default. We’ve also been dealing a little bit with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But the President made clear on that day that the government was reopened that this is a priority.
And I just have to say, Jon, as I said to Mara yesterday, the idea that everything revolves around whether or not any President is sitting down with the Speaker of the House is just -- that's not a reflection of how things get done in Washington, okay? The House of Representatives has within its power the capacity to put a version of the Senate bill, its own version of the Senate bill on the floor today -- well, if they were in session. Are they in session? I think they are. Anyway, if they're in session.
So our position is well known. The President’s willingness to work with lawmakers of both parties on this issue is well known. It was demonstrated in the way that we moved forward in the Senate. And we’re going to continue that effort.
Q Okay. I want to ask about the health care rollout. We’re three and a half weeks in. Can you now tell me how many people have enrolled through healthcare.gov?
MR. CARNEY: As I said yesterday, we’re going to provide monthly --
Q Is that because you don't know? Does the White House not know how many people have enrolled? Or you just don't want to tell us?
MR. CARNEY: Jon, as I said yesterday, this is a process of gathering information from online enrollments, from paper application enrollments, from in-person enrollments and --
Q But I asked you specifically online. Can you tell me how many people have been enrolled online?
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is that we're going to provide information monthly about enrollments that --
Q So you don't know? Do you not know?
MR. CARNEY: Jon, what I'm telling you is that we're going to make public that information when we have gathered it on a monthly basis. I am also saying, in response to your question, that when it comes to enrollments, there are multiple sources through which -- and avenues through which people are enrolling, and we're gathering that information both from states and through the federal marketplaces, through online applications, through mail applications, through in-person applications and phone applications.
So what we're going to do is provide regular monthly information about enrollments as well as other data. What we're also doing, as I announced yesterday, is having regular briefings at CMS, because that’s closer to the ground of where the website issues are being dealt with, on the progress being made to deal with the website challenges that we've seen.
Q You said this is one portal. Are you saying that the telephone applications are working just fine?
MR. CARNEY: I'm saying that people can -- there are four ways that people can enroll and get information about the benefits available to them and the plans that are on the table from which they can choose. If you're now going to say that people have had trouble with the call-in centers, I'm not going to dispute that. What I am going to say is --
Q So there is a problem with the call-in centers?
MR. CARNEY: No, I'm not saying there's a problem, Jon. But I've already had this question a bunch of times and what I'm going to say is what we're providing is as many avenues as possible for people to get the information they need. And wait times at the call-in centers are low. We've increased staffing during peak hours to improve that method of getting information and shopping and enrolling. And we're going to keep at this every day, and every day we're going to make more progress. Because the goal here is not a perfect website or a perfect call-in center; it's to get Americans who want affordable health insurance the insurance that they desire.
Q In hindsight, seeing all the problems with the rollout, wouldn’t it have made more sense to delay it for a little while?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as I said in answer to an earlier question, we expected the website to function at a higher level than it has functioned, on October 1st. And the fact that it has not and that there have been these problems is unacceptable. The President has said that, the Secretary has said that, and I have said that, others have said it. And that is just the ground truth.
We are working every day to improve that, because that’s what the American people want. I mean, one of the indisputable facts about the rollout has been the enormous amount of interest in learning about the options available and finding out that you can, with the subsidies available, buy truly affordable health insurance -- for many people, for the first time in a long time, if not their entire lives.
Q Because the contractors said they could have used more time. They only had two weeks to test this, and they could have used a few months to test it. So, I mean, if you could have had a smoother -- I mean, I’m just asking in hindsight -- you could have delayed this by a couple months, had it tested and maybe had a smooth rollout.
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jon, I think if you’re asking me do we wish that there had been a better and more effective website on October 1st -- absolutely. If you’re asking me, as was asked earlier, do we think it’s right and appropriate to ask Americans with preexisting conditions to wait longer for affordable health insurance, the answer is no.
Q No, I was asking if you wanted more time to get it right.
MR. CARNEY: Here’s another fact that I understand is not often reported: People are enrolling every day, and they’ve been enrolling every day since October 1st.
Q But you won’t tell us how many. I mean, that would be great to know.
MR. CARNEY: Well, good reporters out there across the country have been reporting on individuals who are getting and enrolling in health insurance. It’s a fact. And I know that every news organization here has done that, and that’s an important fact to report, in addition to the troubles that have been apparent on the website. So people have been getting into the system and out of the system since day one. The experience on healthcare.gov has been far below the standards we expected, and that is why we are working every day to make the improvements that we’re making.
Q Jay, can you, from the podium, describe what happened yesterday with the shift from the February 15th to the March 31st deadline, and by what authority that was carried out? Is that something that is simply in the available latitude of HHS? Because it looked, the legislation, like it was a fixed date. Is that something that you need to go back to have changed through Congress or anything like that?
MR. CARNEY: I appreciate the question because I know there was some confusion last night. The individual mandate timing has not changed. The deadline for signing up for insurance was and is March 31st. What I also said on Monday is that the administration has been working on basically aligning the deadlines for enrollment and enforcement -- February 15th and March 31st. And today, if there is no course correction, individuals who have bought insurance on the marketplaces by March 31st could nevertheless be penalized for not having their insurance start by March 31st, and we are working to issue guidance that would make sure that doesn’t happen.
So in other words, if you have insurance by March 31st because you’ve purchased it but it hasn’t kicked in, you should not be penalized. And we’re working to make sure that that does not happen. But that is simply an alignment of deadlines. It does not change the mandate, does not change the end date.
What I will say is that this is still in the works. A lot of reporting on this has gotten ahead of the actual facts, and the guidance has not been finalized. When it is, I’m sure that HHS, CMS and even I will be able to tell you that it’s done. But it’s not done.
Q And so this is something that can be done within the existing authority of HHS, it does not require any legislative remedy?
MR. CARNEY: That is my understanding. I would certainly encourage you to call into the briefing done today at CMS.
Q Right. And I want to follow up on Nedra’s earlier questions -- and I know you’re constrained, and I’m not trying to -- well, I am trying to force you out of that constraint if I can, but I understand it and I appreciate it.
MR. CARNEY: And I understand that, so go for it.
Q So you understand that by saying the United States is not monitoring and will not, that invites a supposition, as it has in Germany, that the United States was monitoring not just foreign communications of a friendly government -- Germany -- but a Chancellor’s cell phone. And I’m just trying to ask you, on the record, at the podium, are you comfortable with that supposition? Or do you want to say anything that would knock that down? Because it has become an assumption embedded in your carefully constrained description of what isn’t happening and what won’t happen.
MR. CARNEY: What I did, Major, was provide a readout of the President’s phone conversation with Chancellor Merkel. What I can’t do and won’t do is answer every allegation that appears in print about intelligence activities that have been engaged in, or may or may not have been engaged in by the United States, because the path that leads us down is not one that we can travel.
So what we are --
Q Even with an ally like Germany?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, the assurances the President offered to the Chancellor and that I reiterated in the readout reflect the importance and strength of the relationship that we have with Germany.
What I can tell you is that the President has an initiated a review of the way that we gather intelligence, keeping in mind the balance that we need to seek here, and that review is ongoing and it reflects the President’s understanding of the concerns that have been raised by some of these -- by countries because of some of these reports. And we’re going to keep at that review and keep looking at the ways to achieve that balance.
When it comes to specific allegations of specific activity, I just can’t answer those questions. I can simply tell you that we are looking at this issue and that we do have discussions with the nations involved in these reports through normal diplomatic channels.
Q I don't need to tell you this is not the only disclosure that’s caused diplomatic tension, as you mentioned. Brazil, France, Mexico have all in their own ways launched protests. And two questions related to that: How difficult has it been from the administration’s point of view to sort of be catching this as these disclosures continue, knowing you have no control over it, knowing that you don’t know what the next disclosure might be and what other diplomatic fire you might have to put out? Point one. Point two, with that history, is there anything the administration is doing now preemptively to let other people know things that they might find disclosed later and might cause a domestic uproar because it’s a revelation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, excellent questions. On the second one, in terms of diplomatic communications that we may or may not be having, I don’t have information on that for you.
There is no question that this has caused -- these revelations have caused tensions in some of our relationships, and those relationships are very important to the United States and to the American people, to our economy and to our security. And that is why we have taken them seriously. That is why the President has --
Q Have they so far been manageable, these tensions?
MR. CARNEY: Well, obviously I can’t speak for other countries, but we have worked very diligently to manage them, to communicate with other governments about the source of their tension, source of their concern, and to assure them and to assure their publics that the President has initiated a review of our intelligence-gathering practices.
Q One last thing. There was a very important story in The Washington Post yesterday about documents, memoranda between the United States and Pakistan related to drone activity. And it indicated that there was a much broader awareness and -- not coming right at the edge of cooperation -- between the two governments with the drone strike policies. I wondered if you had any comment on that story and, if it, in fact, is something that has been understood but not disclosed, and does it broaden our sense of understanding about how difficult an issue this actually is.
MR. CARNEY: Well, Major, what I can’t speak to is specific operational issues. What I can tell you is that on matters of bilateral cooperation, on counterterrorism, we have regular conversations with Pakistan and that is obviously a piece of the kind of conversations that we had during the Prime Minister’s visit.
It’s critically important that we work closely with our partners, including Pakistan, providing them with the support they need in helping build their capacity to carry out counterterrorism operations in their own countries. I mean, it is useful to remember that Pakistan has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists and violent extremists, by some measures perhaps more than any other country. And we have a common enemy and a common cause. And we have long said that there needs to be a coordinated and concerted effort to combat violent extremists of all kinds, whoever they threat.
So we had a broader agenda with Prime Minister, and that broader agenda was discussed. But this is not --
Q But he still raised it on his own --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't have a readout beyond what we have provided on the President's meeting. But it's important to remember that our relationship with Pakistan goes beyond these issues, and that there are economic and other matters very much a part of the discussion.
Q Do you find any of that story that was inaccurate?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not going to comment on operational matters. But I applaud the effort.
Q Jay, I want to ask about health care, but first, an important issue that hasn't come up yet -- a couple of U.S. citizens, we understand, have been kidnapped near Nigeria. I wonder what you can tell us about what you know and what the President has been briefed on.
MR. CARNEY: What I can tell you is that we are aware of the reports that two U.S. citizens have been kidnapped from a U.S.-flagged vessel off the coast of Nigeria in the Gulf of Guinea. We are seeking additional information so that we can contribute to the safe resolution of the situation.
More broadly, we are concerned by the disturbing increase in the incidents of maritime crime, including incidents of piracy off the coast of West Africa, specifically in the Gulf of Guinea. And we have and will continue to work with West African governments to build the capacity and political will needed to address piracy and related criminal activity. So we're monitoring the situation and we're seeking additional details. Our principal concern now is the safe return of two American citizens.
Q Thank you. On health care, you said earlier again this is Monday-morning quarterbacking. That word "quarterback" came up at the hearing today, because one of the contractors, Cheryl Campbell, said, in her words, HHS is "the quarterback on this project and is the ultimate responsible party." So my question is, all these allegations going back and forth, who knew what when -- I know you don't want to detail every last one, but to be clear, is Secretary Sebelius the responsible party? Is she the quarterback for these mistakes? I understand contractors made mistakes. But, ultimately, is the HHS Secretary responsible? Is the President responsible? Who in this administration is responsible?
MR. CARNEY: The President spoke very clearly from the Rose Garden about the fact that he is wholly unsatisfied with the --
Q Unsatisfied, but is he responsible?
MR. CARNEY: I've said this is on us. And that goes from the President on down. This website needs to work effectively for the American people. And we need to get the product that they so clearly desire to them as efficiently and effectively as possible. That's why we're working as hard as we can to resolve these issues and improve the consumer experience on healthcare.gov. And as we do that, we are building capacity through the other avenues by which people can shop and enroll. That includes by phone, through the call-in centers, in person or by mail.
But we're at this every day because, yes, we want -- this is something the President fought hard for and he believes it is absolutely vital that those millions of Americans who have lived with the uncertainty of not having coverage for so long have these options available to them.
And as I noted earlier, while there have been problems -- and they have been significant and they have not been, by any means, acceptable -- from October 1st, Americans have been shopping, applying and enrolling in the Affordable Care Act -- in the marketplaces.
Q Two other quick ones on this. Specifically, I haven’t heard you asked yet -- I know you attacked Republicans earlier and said that there are folks who want to dismantle the law who are trying to change it and disguise it as a delay. But there are also, you have to acknowledge now, a significant number of Senate Democrats -- at least five or six -- who want some kind of changes. And to be absolutely clear, they're not saying they want to defund the law, they're not saying they want to kill the law, they're saying they want to make it better. They want to -- but they do want to change it.
And so my question is, you’ve talked about responsible change to the law to make it better. Is this proposal that various Senate Democrats have said -- extend open enrollment beyond March 31st -- yes or no, does the White House support it?
MR. CARNEY: Well, here’s what I would say, Ed, we’re three and a half weeks into a six-month process. The open enrollment period was six months for a reason, which was to give ample time as these marketplaces were launched for Americans to shop for health insurance, evaluate their options, find out what tax subsidies are available to them if they're lower income, and then make their decision about the kind of coverage they can afford and want for them and their family. And we’re still early in that process.
And what is important to remember is that, as I said earlier, people are getting through. They are shopping. They are applying. I think we said the other day roughly a half a million people had submitted applications. I’m sure that number is higher now. And we’re going to work every day to make the consumer experience better.
And March 31st is still a significant ways away, and we are working to make the system better. The system was inadequate -- the website anyway -- on October 1st, unquestionably, and it’s still not where we need it to be today by any means. But it is significantly better today --
Q Too early to say, but --
MR. CARNEY: -- significantly better today than it was a week ago and a week before that, and certainly on October 1st. And that's the progress we’re looking for. I think I used the go-to sports analogy that this is three yards and a cloud of dust every day. But that means moving forward, and that means improvements every day that will help Americans get the information they need so they can get the insurance they deserve.
Q If you get three yards every play, you have to punt after the third one, right?
MR. CARNEY: No. In fact, you have four downs, and you get a first down.
Q So you’re going for it? You’re going for it?
MR. CARNEY: And then you score a touchdown. (Laughter.)
Q All right, last one. You have also said from this podium let’s not just focus on the website, let’s focus on the substance. So I’m sure you saw the front page of The New York Times saying they did a review, and they found that the law is, in their words, "failing to lower prices in rural areas all around the country." And they say that poor people are "often paying more" as they sign up, or will be paying more as they sign up. And so my question is, you've said so many times that the law was intended to help so many people, and The New York Times is suggesting the people you're trying to help actually are going to pay more. So isn't that --
MR. CARNEY: Well, let's be clear -- under the Affordable Care Act, nearly all consumers -- about 95 percent -- will have a choice of two or more health insurance issuers, often many more. And nearly all consumers -- about 95 percent -- live in states with average premiums below earlier estimates.
In the marketplace, new rating and benefit rules, along with bans on preexisting exclusions, allow insurers to compete for customers based on price and quality. The individual market has long been dominated by one or two carriers, particularly in rural areas. So this is a problem that significantly preexists the Affordable Care Act.
The ACA encourages competition and is leading to new carriers and delivery system models, but we know that we can't transform these markets overnight. Prior to the ACA, many individuals had no access to coverage because they were denied coverage due to a preexisting condition or priced out of the market entirely. Individuals will have an average of 53 qualified health plan choices in states where HHS will fully or partially run the marketplace. On average, premiums before tax credits will be more than 16 percent lower than projected. Six out of ten people could be eligible for coverage that is less than $100 from new options created by the Affordable Care Act.
So I understand the question and I obviously read the story. This is a challenge that the Affordable Care Act is designed to address, and it is addressing it. And we're going to keep working on making sure that individuals across the country that have not had access to affordable health insurance have that access.
And as I've said, 95 percent of all consumers live in states with premiums -- average premiums that are below earlier estimates. And this is within a broader context, as I've noted, in which we have seen over the three years since the Affordable Care Act was passed into law and Republicans and opponents of it said that it would jack up growth rates and health care prices, we've seen the opposite. We've seen the slowest rate of growth in health care costs in half a century.
Q Mr. Collinson.
Q Is the White House concerned that the European indignation could hurt popular support for the proposed trade pact with Washington and could cause leaders to drive a harder bargain on issues like data protection and stuff like that that’s going to be in the deal?
MR. CARNEY: We understand that these allegations, Steve, have caused concerns and in some cases have become a source of tension in our relationships, as I noted earlier, and we are working to address these issues through diplomatic channels.
We obviously believe that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is vitally important to the United States and to the partners with whom we’re working on it, and we’ll continue to do that.
And we’re reviewing the way that we gather intelligence to ensure that we properly balance the security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that we all share. So this is, I think, as I noted earlier, a clear source of tension in some cases with some of our relationships. These relationships are vitally important, and we are working to communicate on these issues through diplomatic channels. And we are continuing the important work for the benefit of our economies and our partners’ economies on our trade partnerships.
Q On the call between the President and Chancellor Merkel, who called who?
MR. CARNEY: You know, they spoke by phone. I don’t have more information about who initiated the call. The President speaks with Chancellor Merkel with some regularity, and we gave a readout of it yesterday.
Q And as for these concerns that leaders from several governments have expressed around the country, has the President called NSA General Alexander to instruct the agency not to spy on heads of states, especially those other heads of states of allies?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I would never get into specific either allegations or operational matters of foreign intelligence gathering, except to say that we gather foreign intelligence much as other countries do, and to say that we are reviewing, as the President made clear, our foreign intelligence operations with in mind the need to strike that balance between our security needs and the security needs of our allies, and the privacy concerns that we all share. So beyond that, I can’t get into details, beyond the readout, of course, that I made of the Chancellor’s and the President’s phone call.
Q And on the website, we talked to an insurance industry source who said that administration officials over at HHS were aware of these issues prior to the October 1st launch, and that they failed to tell the White House, or warn the White House of these issues. Can we just get a straight answer -- was the White House or was the White House not warned about these issues prior to October 1st?
MR. CARNEY: Again, Jim, we have said -- and I can take you back to I think spring, where we said of course there would be glitches with --
Q Well, everybody knows if you roll out any kind of website there are going to be glitches. But there’s a different --
MR. CARNEY: So what I’ve said -- when you say “these issues” -- if you’re saying --
Q The present issues that stand now.
MR. CARNEY: Tell me when you want me to answer. Tell me when you want me to answer.
Q Were there warnings, or were there not warnings?
MR. CARNEY: We were aware of the fact and said to you and the American people that there would be some glitches in the rollout of the Affordable Health Care website. What we did not expect, absolutely did not expect, was the scale of the problems that we’ve seen.
Q And you were not warned that there could be any scenario that would take you to the level of problems that you’re experiencing right now? There were no warnings that this could --
MR. CARNEY: Jim, I think that I’ve said that many times. The answer is, yes, we did not anticipate the scale of problems that we have seen. And that has created --
Q You don’t believe that the President was kept in the dark? You don’t believe that this White House was kept in the dark?
MR. CARNEY: What I can say is we did not know -- we did not anticipate, we did not know of the kind of problems that would take place beginning on October 1st until October 1st came and we saw these challenges. And I think that -- I’m not an expert on website design and the kind of complexity that’s involved in a site like this, but there are issues here that, as I’ve seen some experts speak to, that have to do with the volume that both caused some and exposed some of the problems that we’ve seen, that until it went live and we had this influx of millions of Americans going to the website, we did not anticipate.
But again, I think the fundamental point here is we acknowledge entirely that the site is not performing up to the standards that we wanted it to perform up to, and that is why we are working every day to make that experience better for the American people. And we’re focused on what we can do to improve that so that more and more Americans have access to the information they need via the website, in addition to the other avenues available to them, rather than spending a lot of time pointing fingers of blame about why we saw the kind of problematic rollout that we saw.
Q And you said that people are enrolling, but this insurance industry source that we talked to said that some of the enrollee files that are arriving at the insurers are corrupted, that they’re bad applications, that they’re incomplete in some cases, that they come in duplicate form. Won’t that be a problem in terms of tabulating how many people have enrolled?
MR. CARNEY: Jim, I appreciate the question, and I talked at length about this yesterday. I don’t think you need to cite anonymous sources. I said, and we have said, that there has been a problem at several points in the process, including in the transmission of information to insurers, the so-called 874 area of this. And that’s fairly technical, and for that reason we’ve set up the regular briefings at CMS where you can go into more depth about these issues.
Q What we know is that there are specific areas where there’s been problems, some bottlenecks, some other server capacity issues, some code issues, and we have a lot of really smart people who are experts in this field -- working with the smart people who are experts in the field who are already on the team -- to locate, isolate and fix the problems that we’ve found. And the fixes include patches, they include new code, they include increasing server capacity, and with the goal here of making a system that has not been functioning effectively and smoothly function more effectively and more smoothly every day.
Because what is not the case is that it has not worked at all, because we know that people have gone on the system and gotten through, and every day that experience gets better. And our goal is to make it as smooth and efficient as possible for the American people who have demonstrated so clearly that they want this product.
Q Got you. And speaking of anonymous quotes, let me go back to that Dick Durbin quote. How does somebody misinterpret, “I can’t stand looking at you”?
MR. CARNEY: Jim, I think I’ve said that --
Q That’s a pretty big miscommunication.
MR. CARNEY: -- the quote attributed to a Republican lawmaker in a meeting with the President is not accurate, but there was a miscommunication in the readout of that meeting that the White House gave to Senate Democrats, and we regret that.
We’re focused on making progress with Congress and addressing the very important issues that the American people care about and want us to address here in Washington, including growing the economy, creating jobs, passing comprehensive immigration reform, passing a farm bill which is so vitally important to rural areas of this country, and that’s what we’re working on.
Q But more broadly, did that meeting ever get testy or unprofessional?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t read out the private meetings of the President. What I can say is that the meeting was focused on the very real disputes that we had with the decision by House Republican leaders to shut the government down. But that was true of every meeting the President had with lawmakers of both parties. And we were focused on getting to a point where the Republicans would agree to reopen the government so that the American people were not harmed any further, and that the economy was not harmed any more, and that the threat of default could be removed so that that damage could be contained. And that was the focus of the meeting -- that meeting and other meetings -- because those were the most important issues that we were confronting at the time.
Q So the President didn’t come away from that meeting feeling that he had been insulted in any way or --
MR. CARNEY: Again, Jim, what the President came away from that meeting feeling is that we need Congress to act right away to open the government and act right away to ensure that the United States retained its full faith and credit in the world.
Q German media. Would you take a question from the German media?
MR. CARNEY: Yes, I will.
Q Okay, thank you.
MR. CARNEY: I saw you sitting there patiently, but --
Q Is the President aware that privacy is a very sensitive issue, especially in Germany, because Chancellor Merkel was raised in a system where intelligence agencies monitored people day and night? And what is he going to do to restore [sic] the harm and the damage that has been caused? Is he going to speed up the review process?
MR. CARNEY: The President is obviously aware of this. This is something that he knows from discussions with the Chancellor, with whom he has a long and strong relationship, and he is certainly aware of her past, and he’s aware of Germany’s past and East Germany’s past.
As to the second part of your question, we are engaged in this review precisely because the President ordered it and believes it’s important to assess our intelligence-gathering activities while keeping in mind the need to strike this balance.
We, like other nations, gather foreign intelligence because it is in our national security interest to do so. There are real threats out there against the American people and against our allies, including Germany, including allies around Europe and around the world. We also need to balance those security needs against the understandable privacy concerns that we all share.
And so that’s the process that’s underway. I know that the President has had discussions with Chancellor Merkel about that, including yesterday in their phone call. And he’s very understanding of the concerns that have been raised broadly in Germany and elsewhere by these reports, and we’re working through our diplomatic channels to discuss those issues with our counterparts as we conduct this review of our intelligence- gathering activities.
Thanks very much.
1:46 P.M. EDT
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