Healthcare.gov May Not Be Fixed By November 30th
With just over two weeks today, rumors are starting to float out that the efforts to fix the Federal Exchange website may not be done in time.
It’s been nearly six weeks now since the Federal Obamacare Exchange, Healthcare.gov, was officially launched. Its problems, of course, have been well documented both here and elsewhere and are likely the primary contributor to what are clearly disappointingly low enrollment numbers. In the immediate aftermath of the bad press reports that followed the bad roll out, the Administration made a promise that the site would be fixed by the end of this month, and they’ve stuck by that promise consistently ever since then. Today, though, The Washington Post passes on reports from behind the scenes of the repair effort that seem to indicate that November 30th is likely to come and go without the site being fixed:
Software problems with the federal online health insurance marketplace, especially in handling high volumes, are proving so stubborn that the system is unlikely to work fully by the end of the month as the White House has promised, according to an official with knowledge of the project.
The insurance exchange is balking when more than 20,000 to 30,000 people attempt to use it at the same time — about half its intended capacity, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information. And CGI Federal, the main contractor that built the site, has succeeded in repairing only about six of every 10 of the defects it has addressed so far.
Government workers and technical contractors racing to repair the Web site have concluded, the official said, 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.
This inside view of the halting nature of HealthCare.gov repairs is emerging as the insurance industry is working behind the scenes on contingency plans, in case the site continues to have problems. And it calls into question the repeated assurances by the White House and other top officials that the insurance exchange will work smoothly for the vast majority of Americans by Nov. 30. Speaking in Dallas a week ago, President Obama said that the “Web site is already better than it was at the beginning of October, and by the end of this month, we anticipate that it is going to be working the way it is supposed to, all right?”
And, indeed, the White House was quick to push back on today’s report, saying that they fully expect the website to be fully operational in the next 17 days and standing by their promise that all will be well by November 30th. Those reassurances not withstanding, though, today’s report is the latest in a series of reports that have suggested, subtly, that the problems with the website may continue beyond the deadline, especially when it comes to the less-reported, but far more important issue of whether or not the insurance companies listed on the exchange are being given sufficient or accurate data to allow them to process individual applications. As Ezra Klein and others have pointed out over the past month, this back office problem, rather than the web site integrity problems that users continue to face on a seemingly random basis, could end up being the true Achilles Heal of the entire PPACA roll out. In the end, if the insurance companies aren’t getting correct data from the website(s), then the system simply isn’t going to work at all and people who thought they had signed p for insurance that will begin on January 1st may find that they don’t have insurance at all due to data issues that were entirely beyond their control.
Reacting to today’s news, Klein and Evan Soltas had this to say:
Blowing through the December 1st deadline obviously creates huge political problems for the White House. But does it create correspondingly huge policy problems for the law?
The answer depends on two things.
First, does the White House’s evident inability to repair the Web site in a timely fashion (or even, at this point, an untimely fashion) lead congressional Democrats to panic and support bills — like a yearlong delay in the individual mandate — that make it harder for the law to succeed even once its digital infrastructure is fixed? T
he second question, of course, is how far off-schedule the White House really is. If HealthCare.gov is working smoothly for the majority of users on December 1st but it only works smoothly for the “vast majority” of users on December 15th, that won’t matter much. If the Web site remains more or less unusable into 2014, that’s obviously a much bigger problem for the law. But because there’s so little visibility into the process, no one really knows. And the White House, thus far, has not been a particularly credible guide.
At first glance, it seems clear that a failure to be able to make the December 1st deadline will make the political headache for the White House and for Democrats who, before this whole mess started, seemed to be on top of the political world thanks to the GOP’s misguided defunding plan that led to a completely unnecessary government shutdown. Democrats who are vulnerable in 2014, many of whom are already sponsoring legislation that would delay or extend certain deadlines related to when individuals must sign up for insurance, would likely distance themselves even further from the White House. Additionally, as I noted yesterday, further delays in the viability of the website sign-up process are likely to make it less likely that people will sign up at all, which will create a whole new set of problems that will impact the health care insurance market as a whole.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that none of this will come to pass and that the website will be fully functional as promised. At that point, though, it’s not at all clear that the political controversy that has developed around the ObamaCare rollout will dissappate significantly. Even if the Administration can put the issue of a non-functional website behind it, the question simply will transition to whether people actually do start signing up for coverage in the numbers that are needed, and how the issue of canceled policies continued to play out. Whether the website is “working” after November 30th isn’t completely relevant to either of those issues, although one does wonder if the fact that it took two months for the Federal Government to do something as seemingly simple as develop a functional website will degrade public confidence in the system so much that people will simply stay away no matter how many assurances they get about the website.
At the very least, however, it’s clear that this roll out has been nothing short of an epic disaster. Remarkably, though, not a single person has yet to be fired over it.