Will Obamacare Tech Fixes Plug Political Fallout?
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The Fiscal Times
December 2, 2013

The administration’s announcement over the weekend that it has achieved its promised goal of making the Obamacare website workable for the “vast majority” of users was the first piece of genuinely positive news since the disastrous rollout began Oct. 1 – one that may  have staunched the political hemorrhaging at the White House.

The health care debacle has driven the president’s approval rating to a rock bottom 40.1 percent, according to RealClearPolitics, which averages eight top polls. In an ABC News/Washington Post Poll, fifty-seven percent say they oppose the president’s health care plan, according to the poll; 63 percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of its rollout. And nearly half of Americans believe the president misled them about whether they could keep their current health insurance policies if they liked them, according to other polling.

Related - White House Claims ‘Mission Accomplished’ on Healthcare.gov

Former Senior White House Adviser David Plouffe said on Sunday he believes Obama’s “numbers will recover” and that people “trust this president,” despite Obama’s current sorry approval ratings.

“It’s been a tough patch,” Plouffe said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “And it’s not just healthcare, you know, the [16-day government] shutdown affected everybody, confidence in government.  But let’s fast forward to the State of the Union and the months after that: Health care working better, a lot of people signing up, economy continuing to strengthen, hopefully no Washington shutdowns….I think the president’s numbers will recover, I think people’s confidence will recover,” he added.

GOP Strategic Plan on Obamacare
Republicans have seized on the Obamacare rollout crisis as an issue to ride hard into the 2014 mid-term elections. They say the numerous insurance policy cancellations, doctor dropouts and technical problems have vindicated their long-standing insistence that the law is hopelessly flawed. They are devoting considerable time and energy in highlighting the travails of constituents trying who have seen their old insurance policies canceled but can’t sign up for new policies because of all the technical problems with the site.

Related: Doctor Shortage Could Rise Under Medicaid Expansion

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who also appeared on This Week, said the problems with the Affordable Care Act will continue to damage the president and his administration. “The first impression here was terrible, and I think it will be an unfolding disaster for the president,” Cole said. “This thing is going to be an unmitigated political disaster for the president."

After weeks of repeated technical breakdowns and humiliating congressional hearings into government miscues and faulty planning, the government website is more stable than when it was first launched, but it remains an uncertain work in progress.  

The White House claims that HealthCare.gov will be able to support 50,000 users at any one time and 800,000 consumers on a given day without crashing, officials said Sunday. It is now available more than 90 percent of the time, not including scheduled downtime for maintenance and continued fixes, compared to a mere 42.9 percent of the time in October.

“The bottom line: HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct.1,” said Jeffrey Zients, the former White House budget director who honchoed the crisis-driven on-line makeover that so far has resulted in more than 400 technical bug fixes and massive upgrades of software and hardware used for the enrollment process.

Whether the administration is finally on track to enroll millions of Americans in new and affordable health insurance plans by early next year remains to be seen. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that seven million people will have signed up for coverage by then, yet just 106,000 selected new insurance coverage during October on the federal and state-operated exchanges.

Related: Millennials Give Obamacare a Big Boost in Poll

The newly improved on-line system probably will get its first big test this week when people emerge from the Thanksgiving holiday determined to sign up or curious about the government’s claims of a vastly improving system. At the same time, critics and opponents will be watching closely or testing the system in search of new cracks.

At the same time, much remains to be done to complete the overall Internet system, even after the progress announced yesterday.  

At the outset of the website salvage operation, the technical repair team headed by Zients made an intentional decision to focus their repair effort on making HealthCare.gov work better for individual consumers, The New York Times reported Sunday. That has meant postponing some “back-end” fixes for insurance companies that use the site to receive applications and bill the government for subsidy payments.

According to Politico, a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services official said that as much as 40 percent of the development of Obamacare IT is unfinished, including a crucial piece that lets the government and insurers determine whether their enrollment records match.

Moreover, database software that was developed by Mark Logic, one of the federal contractors, to provide the website with a virtual filing system and index continues to perform below expectations, according to The Times report.

Related – Obamacare Individual Mandate May Be Next to Fall

One of the great ironies of the Obamacare website political disaster is that a President who prided himself on winning election twice with state of the art campaign technical tactics has seen his signature health insurance policy seriously undercut and diminished by colossal government IT problems.

At the same time the administration has rushed to salvage the $630 million federal online insurance exchange—a price tag that most professionals believe is way out of line for the work that has been done—it has been forced to perform triage on the overall program to compensate for the daunting website technical challenges.

Late last week, the administration announced a one-year delay in a major provision of the new health care law that would allow small businesses to buy insurance online for their employees. With the administration totally focused on improving the enrolling process for individual consumers, small businesses and their workers were left to fend for themselves by applying through brokers.

This was reminiscent of an administration decision shortly before July 4th to postpone for a year a requirement that larger businesses with more than 50 employees offer health insurance to their workers. The administration also delayed enforcement of a number of key eligibility requirements for the new health insurance subsidies, by temporarily relying on an “honor system” for consumers.

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service released a report in September detailing 19 instances in which portions of the Affordable Care Act were successfully amended, rescinded, repealed or delayed since passage of the law in 2010. The most recent delays were directly related to administration concerns that the troubled website could not handle multiple complicated tasks online.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.