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Obamacare may not be fixed by Nov. 30. Big deal or 'so what'?

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Brian Snyder/Reuters

(Read caption) Liz Carlson, who was unable to create a user account on the Obamacare website, instead left a health care enrollment fair in Portsmouth, N.H., last week with a paper application.

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Obamacare may not be fixed when promised. That’s the implication of a bombshell story in The Washington Post Wednesday, which says stubborn software problems are likely to hobble the federal online health insurance marketplace into early December and perhaps beyond.

Right now the troubled HealthCare.gov site can’t handle more than 20,000 to 30,000 users at a time, according to Post reporters Amy Goldstein, Juliet Eilperin, and Lena H. Sun. That’s about half its intended capacity.

According to an unnamed official quoted in the story, technical experts have concluded that this situation isn’t getting better soon. This official says that those trying to fix the problems now believe that “the only way for large numbers of Americans to enroll in the health-care plans soon is by using other means so that the online system isn’t overburdened.”

President Obama likely winced when he saw this piece in his morning news feed. Back in October, Jeff Zients, the management expert brought in by the White House to rescue the troubled HealthCare.gov, told reporters that the site would be working smoothly for the vast majority of users “by the end of November.”

Perhaps that’s a red line Mr. Zients should not have drawn. Now the administration faces the prospect of missing a deadline it imposed on itself.

Or does it? On the record, White House spokesfolks are pushing back against this report Wednesday morning. Administration communications official Jennifer Palmieri insisted to New York Magazine that fixing the site by the end of November is still a “go.”

“The website will be working well for a majority of users by Nov. 30,” Palmieri told the magazine’s Jonathan Chait.

So what’s going on here? Is this a big deal, or a tempest in a tea cup (green loose leaf, hold the milk and sugar)?

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We’d say its importantish. Missing the deadline could cause big political problems for the White House.

If nothing else, the administration is positioning for a coming fight on what constitutes “success” in the next few weeks. In that context, the website’s capacity becomes a crucial piece of information.

The Post apparently has the techie viewpoint: It’s still broken. But the administration may argue that things are much better than they were (true) and that therefore it’s OK to make the somewhat arbitrary judgment that the website is “fixed.”

As to the political situation, many Democrats are urging the Obama team to figure out a Plan B, and fast. Notable among them is ex-president Bill Clinton, who said in an interview released Tuesday that the administration should ensure Americans can retain their current health policies if they wish “even if it takes a change to the law.”

Some Democratic lawmakers are forging ahead by themselves. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana has introduced legislation that would mandate insurance companies keep people on current plans if they want.

Republicans, meanwhile, are seizing on this internal Democratic dissent as evidence that they’ve been right all along about the nature of the Affordable Care Act.

Clinton’s comments “signify a growing recognition that Americans were misled when they were promised that they could keep their coverage under President Obama’s health care law,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio.

What the administration really does not want to happen here is for congressional Democrats to break and agree to some temporary fix, perhaps even a delay in the individual mandate, which could make it harder to implement Obamacare down the road.

Politics aside, the Nov. 30 deadline and continued website glitches may not be crucial in terms of the rate of ACA enrollment. That’s because previous experience indicates that most Americans may wait until close to the deadline before signing up for new or expanded social programs.

When Medicare’s Part D prescription drug plan rolled out in the Bush presidency, two-thirds of those who enrolled did so after coverage actually began on Jan. 1, 2006, according to figures from market analysis firm Avalere Health.

“People are slow to purchase coverage when new programs begin, and if past programs are any guide, we expect most exchange participants will wait until after January 2014 to enroll,” said Avalere vice president Caroline Pearson in late October.


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