White House Warns Obamacare Enrollees to Proceed With Caution

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White House officials said that the administration is on track to “meeting the goals that we established for ourselves and established for the website on November 30th,” meaning Healthcare.gov, the portal that links all 36 federal online insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act, will theoretically be running smoothly by the end of this month. That confirmation was given by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday, but from other comments made recently, it appears the White House does not want insurance customers rushing to begin applications on the website.

Two particular pieces of information support that conclusion. First, as The New York Times reports, the White House has urged its allies including state officials and organizations like Enroll America to hold back enrollment efforts so the online insurance exchanges do not buckle under the weight of thousands of new users. Administration officials also announced Tuesday that an extensive campaign effort to draw new enrollees to the marketplaces will not be launched as planned in December, the concern being that Healthcare.gov will still be fragile.

These comments seem to suggest that the Obama administration is reneging on its promise that the federal health care website will be operating smoothly by the self-imposed deadline of November 30. But a much more likely explanation is that government officials are attempting to manage expectations. The goal is to strike a balance between encouraging wary Americans to give Obamacare enrollment a second chance and creating a spike in demand that could overwhelm the website.

The caution being exhibited by the White House contrasts sharply with the planned campaign, which would be an all-out push to persuade millions of uninsured Americans to buy insurance policies through the online marketplaces. Instead, officials will concentrate their efforts on those whose insurance policies have been canceled.

Still, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department is responsible for supervising the development of the health care website, said on Tuesday, according to the Times, “I would urge you and your folks on the ground to not hesitate to recommend that people go to Healthcare.gov and get signed up.”

Obamacare’s cornerstone provision — the online insurance marketplaces — launched October 1 to numerous software errors and design flaws that caused hours-long wait times, prevented potential customers from creating accounts and completing the 30-step enrollment process, sent insurers the wrong information, and made it difficult for customers to get an accurate cost estimate.

In the first weeks of the six-month enrollment period, administration officials attributed the numerous glitches to widespread interest among Americans, and while it was later revealed that ongoing glitches were also largely the fault of design problems, expanding capacity has been a primary goal of the administration’s efforts to fix the troubled federal health care website.

By late October, additional IT staffers had been brought on, the site had been updated several times with new code that included “bug fixes,” and additional capacity had been added, Sebelius explained during her testimony before the House of Representative’s Energy and Commerce Committee on October 30.

As Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, reiterated at a press briefing Monday aboard the Air Force One, Healthcare.gov should be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users. In the event that there are more than 50,000 users attempting to enroll or create accounts, insurance customers can choose to receive an email from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services when the traffic on the website has decreased.

“That email will basically give them a link, and if you click on the link, you can jump to the front of the line to access the website,” he said. At that level of capacity, millions of people should be able to enroll in the next four months.

However, those in charge of fixing the website worry that as many as 250,000 people may try to use the Healthcare.gov simultaneously on Saturday and the days following the November 30 deadline. On October 1, the first day the online exchanges opened for enrollment, approximately 4.7 million people visited Healthcare.gov, according to the Obama administration.

Now that the administration has set a deadline for improvement, if the website crashes repeatedly once again, critics of the Affordable Care Act will be handed new ammunition, and even Democratic supporters may become concerned about the viability of the exchange system.That is why various administrative officials and aides of President Obama are managing expectations.

“The system will not work perfectly,” Jeffrey D. Zients, who is leading website repair effort, told New York Times reporters on Friday. He said the website would be able to handle 50,000 users at one time but added, “To be clear, there will be times that volume on Healthcare.gov will exceed this capacity.”

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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