President Dons His Obamacare Salesman Hat Once Again

Obama

As promised, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced last weekend that fixes made to healthcare.gov mean the $630 million web portal that links all 36 federal online insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act will be running smoothly for most customers. For the administration, the announcement meant that the White House could recommence its healthcare reform campaign efforts.

The focus of the offensive will be placed not on the online insurance exchanges — the cornerstone provision of the Affordable Care Act that have seen relatively low enrollment numbers thus far — but on why the 2010 health care reform law was passed. It is obvious why the emphasis has been shifted away from the present and toward what the health care reform law was meant to achieve. After the botched October 1 rollout of the insurance marketplaces, the Department of Health and Human Services scrambled for weeks to find a fix for the error-riddled, federally-designed exchanges.

Still, throughout the month of October, website crashes continued and more problems materialized, including the discovery that its data center had inadequate capacity and poorly-written computer code, authored by contractors pressured to rapidly adjust to changing government specifications. Many of these problems had not been uncovered because the website had barely been tested before October 1.

Now, according to CMS, healthcare.gov functions for 90 percent of the day, not counting scheduled maintenance, a notable improvement from the 43 percent recorded in the first week of last month. Error rates have also been reduced from 6 percent to less than 1 percent, and page-load times are at an acceptable level of less than one second. But the memory of the tidal wave of criticism and political backlash that the error-riddled, October 1 launch of the insurance exchanges engendered is still fresh, and so the Obama administration must once again begin selling the benefits of the law after spending weeks of executing damage-control acrobatics.

A speech to be given at 2:30 p.m. by President Barack Obama will kick off the renewed campaign — a three-week long drive to refocus the public’s attention away from the glitched debut of the online insurance exchanges and toward the law’s benefits, as an administration official told Politico. That the federal healthcare websites are now functioning for most customers as they were “supposed to” on October 1, the White House can return to salesmanship mode.

“Healthcare.gov met our self-imposed November 30 deadline and even as we continue to make improvements to the website, we’ll also remind the public about how the Affordable Care Act is already making a positive difference in the lives of millions of Americans today,” said Josh Earnest, Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary. “The benefits of these consumer protections will only accumulate in the weeks and months ahead.” The consumer benefits that the administration will highlight are the inability of insurers to deny coverage to those Americans with preexisting conditions and the cheaper access all Americans will have to preventative care.

Similarly, a White House official told Reuters that the president seeks to “focus attention back on the core principles of reform that have been lost in the attention on the website, and invoke the successes that are already flowing from the law.” The theme of the campaign is the same as the one the White House espoused in early October: Obamacare is more than a website.

The White House’s return to Obamacare campaigning appears slightly incongruous with comments the administration has made to its allies — including state officials and organizations like Enroll America. As of the November 30 deadline, the federal website was supposed to be able to handle 50,000 concurrent users and as many as 800,000 visitors per day, but the administration was worried the website would experience an unmanageable surge of traffic from potential enrollees expecting a website in perfect working order. As a result, the White House told its allies to hold back enrollment efforts so the online insurance exchanges would not buckle under the weight of thousands of new users.

These comments seem to suggest that the Obama administration was reneging on its promise that the federal healthcare website will be operating smoothly by the self-imposed deadline of November 30. But a much more likely explanation is that government officials was attempting to manage expectations. The goal is to strike a balance between encouraging wary Americans to give the Obamacare enrollment a second chance and creating demand the will overwhelm the website. More simply, the White House is not warning that healthcare.gov cannot meet the deadline but ensuring that Americans will not expect the web portal to work perfectly for everyone who attempts to log on.

The president must also rebuild confidence among his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, many of whom have threatened to roll back aspects of Obamacare if the functioning of the insurance marketplaces does not improve quickly. To those concerned lawmakers, the president must emphasize what will be lost if the reform is repealed. Still, leaders of the Democrat party are welcoming the renewed attention to the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.

“The consequences of Republican repeal are exactly the case that we need to be making — because Republican repeal would take us backward to a broken system that hurts too many Americans — like forcing millions of seniors to pay $1,200 more for their prescription drugs,” Democratic Representative Steve Israel of New York, Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Politico. “Every poll tells us that when we make that case, voters choose Democrats.”

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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