November 23, 2014

Obama to tackle Affordable Care Act glitches head-on

President Barack Obama will outline Monday how his administration plans to handle what’s quickly become an embarrassing start for the health care law that will shape his legacy.

From the Rose Garden on Monday morning, Obama will call out the Obamacare website’s well-documented errors as “unacceptable” and try to assure the American public that a crack team of technical experts are working around the clock to do what shouldn’t be so remarkable in 2013: build a functioning website.

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The timing of Obama’s health care event, three weeks after its terrible launch, is an acknowledgement that the administration can’t maintain its Obamacare bunker mentality much longer. With the government shutdown and near-fiscal calamity now off the front pages, Obamacare opponents are primed to highlight all the law’s stumbles starting with a congressional hearing this week.

This was supposed to have been Obamacare’s moment to shine, when the years of bitter fighting in Congress, the states and the courts were supposed to fade away as Americans started signing up for health coverage.

Instead, the administration’s effort to extend affordable health coverage to millions of people devolved into a national punch line about government incompetence. At first the administration blamed the website problems on huge traffic to the site, a sign of high public interest in Obamacare coverage. That explanation’s been dropped as the depth and intensity of the technical obstacles have become evident. One tech expert told The New York Times that as many as 5 million lines of code may need to be rewritten.

“I think that there’s no one more frustrated than the president at the difficulty with the website,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday.

The White House over the weekend touted efforts to improve, offering a likely preview of Obama’s comments Monday morning. In what the administration is labeling a “tech surge,” it’s brought in the “best and brightest” from inside and outside government for website triage and emergency surgery. HHS officials late Sunday night also announced consumer-friendly changes so people can steer clear of the website aggravation. They can comparison shop health plans more easily now, or use paper or the call center to sign up.

But everything that has happened with so far is a far cry from Obama’s frequent assurances that buying Obamacare coverage would be as easy as purchasing a plane ticket with a few online clicks.

What’s still unknown, however, is the timetable for establishing a smooth online enrollment experience. People still have another five months to sign up for coverage, but Democratic allies are already nervous that pervasive glitches could damage their 2014 narrative. And if they want — or need — coverage by Jan 1, they need to enroll by Dec. 15. And it’s not clear how well the site will be working by then, or how much capacity there is for the offline paper and phone enrollments.

“What has happened is unacceptable in terms of the glitches,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “They were overwhelmed to begin with. There is much that needs to be done to correct the situation.”

Meanwhile, Republican opponents of the law are preparing for their own victory lap. The House later this week holds its first hearing to spotlight the faulty Obamacare website. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — who soon after the launch stumbled through an awkward interview with Jon Stewart —has so far refused to testify.

“We believe the American people deserve answers to important questions related to the department’s implementation of the exchanges, and a failure to appear voluntarily to discuss the law’s unfolding challenges would only deepen our concern,” House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders wrote to Sebelius last week.

For all the frustrations with, people have made it made it through the application process — and the White House plans to highlight those stories today. The administration, as part of its weekend Obamacare offensive, announced that 476,000 people submitted applications for Obamacare coverage since Oct. 1, and about half of the applications came from 36 states where the feds are running the online insurance marketplaces.

The White House refuses to say until next month, however, just how many people have successfully completed enrollment in a health care plan. That number is likely to be low, considering that insurers say they’ve received faulty information from the federal government even after someone makes it all the way through the enrollment process.

Even after this weekend’s tech update, the administration has been typically tight-lipped about the depth of problems at the Obamacare website. Health care consultant Bob Laszewski, who’s been voicing the frustrations of insurers during Obamacare’s rollout, said he hopes that Obama’s speech will change all that.

“I hope the president’s speech will finally start a process that is transparent,” Laszewski wrote to clients and reporters Sunday night. “Just exactly what is wrong with the computer system? How long will it take to fix? Have they brought in independent experts whose advice they are now taking? How many people have applied for a health insurance policy? How can they really expect to fix this on the run?”

Former White House health care adviser Zeke Emanuel offered similar advice Monday morning, calling on the White House to provide daily briefings and specific milestones.

“Reassurance verbally is not worth much at this point,” Emanuel said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

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