The fiscal standoff in Washington is over. The United States will not default on its public debt and the federal government will have the funds to continue operating thanks to a piece of legislation passed Wednesday night by both the Senate and the House of Representatives that authorized current spending levels through January 15 and extended the debt cushion until February 7. Of course, the bill is more like a temporary bandage than an actual solution, and the postponement of the unresolved budget dispute is giving congressional lawmakers the time to turn the debate to what actually precipitated the political crisis — the Affordable Care Act.
A strange twist of fate placed the beginning of enrollment for the Affordable Care Act and the first day of the new fiscal year on the same day: October 1. That coincidence gave Republicans an opportunity, or what they thought was an opportunity. At the end of September, Republicans in the House of Representatives pushed through a stopgap bill, by a party-line vote of 230 to 189, that would fund the federal government for the upcoming fiscal year if discretionary spending for the Affordable Care Act was eliminated. Both President Barack Obama and Democrats in the Senate, where the party has a majority, prevented that legislation from progressing any further than the House of Representatives, which of course put the government on course to shut down.
Without the continuing resolution, significant parts of the government were shut down on October 1, putting the United States in jeopardy of defaulting on its federal debt for the first time in history. Despite the role Obamacare played in bringing about the shutdown, the legislation that ended the shutdown did not contain any changes that Republican lawmakers had sought, including the tax on medical devices, and it was far from what the GOP originally wanted — to repeal the Affordable Care Act or at least delay the implementation of the reform’s online insurance marketplaces.
While the health care reform, popularly known as Obamacare, has not been making as big of headlines as the government shutdown, the rollout has been rocky. Since October 1, individuals attempting to log onto the website, which links customers to the online marketplaces for the 36 states with federally-facilitated exchanges, have met with hours of waiting, error messages, and problems calculating subsidies. Yet, during the first 16 days of the six-month enrollment period, the political circus in Washington has outshone the implementation problems. “All Republicans did was give [President Barack Obama] great cover for the complete screw-up on the opening of the exchanges,” Gail Wilensky, a Medicare director during the administration of George H.W. Bush, told The Wall Street Journal of the GOP’s strategy.
Official numbers for how many insurance plans have been sold on the federal exchanges will not be released until November, but according to the government, healthcare.gov received 8.6 million unique visitors in the four days of the six-month enrollment period. Given that official number, the results appear to be an encouraging sign for the administration as 8.6 million people translate roughly into one-sixth of all uninsured Americans. But, in its examination of consumer activity on the federal health care exchanges, the nonpartisan research firm Millward Brown Digital, formerly known as Compete, found a much bleaker reality than what official government rhetoric suggests: the massive stream of interest resulted in only a small trickle of actual enrollments.
Potential enrollees were stymied at registration and further glitches created difficulties for consumers seeking to verify their email accounts and log on to their accounts. More than 214,000 people visited the “I’m having trouble logging in to my marketplace account” page, making it one of the most popular pages on the site. Millward found that just 196,000 people began the 30-step enrollment process but only a small number finished, which is likely a reflection of continued technical problems as well as customers lacking the necessary information and patience to complete all the enrollment steps. In total, only 36,000 people — roughly 1 percent of those who attempted to register for the federal exchange — enrolled.
Many of the 14 states that chose to set up and run their own exchanges have had better results.
Some Republican lawmakers have begun to investigate the site’s problems by asking the administration to detail the technical problems and find the contractors and officials who might be responsible. As the Journal reported, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas has even called for the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who served as the governor of Kansas 2003 to 2009. The problems are so great, according to Republican lawmakers, that the administration should delay the enforcement of the requirement that all Americans who can afford insurance purchase a policy or pay a penalty.
In response to the mounting criticism, Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters told the Journal Wednesday that officials are “continuing to work around the clock to improve the consumer experience… We know that more people are successfully creating accounts, completing the application and shopping for coverage, but we will keep working until the doors to HealthCare.gov are wide open.” But as Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas tells the story, “Democrats have adopted the untenable position of forcing Americans to buy health insurance from a website that doesn’t even work.”
“This is excruciatingly embarrassing for the White House and for the Department of Health and Human Services. This was bungled badly. This was not a server problem, right, like just too many people came to the website. This is a website-architecture problem,” said former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs in an MSNBC interview Monday. “We knew there were going to be some glitches, right. But these are glitches that go, quite frankly, way beyond the pale of what should be expected.”
Comparatively, the Obama administration has not discussed or detailed the flaws. The last update came Friday when the Department of Health and Human Services said that “technical experts” were making “improvements every day.” Similarly, White House press secretary Jay Carney explained earlier that week that “to make further improvements, we are doing several things at once, including adding server capacity and making software changes to make the system more efficient to handle higher volume.”
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