Suddenly, the on-time arrival of President Obama’s signature domestic-policy initiative is under question not just because of politics, but because of technology.
Despite the president’s efforts on Monday to quell concerns about technical problems facing the Obamacare website, Healthcare.gov, questions continue to surface regarding whether to delay a key deadline involved in implementing the law.
The law’s Republican critics in Congress – who have long been trying to repeal, defund, or delay the Affordable Care Act – are taking aim, of course. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is suggesting the mandate to enroll for insurance be postponed until the website is certified as operating smoothly for six months.
But Senator Rubio's plan is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate. The bigger question is: If the software fixes prove to be difficult, might the president feel forced into a delay, offering some sort of exemption for Americans who are unable to enroll online?
In a press briefing Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney faced questions along that line. Mr. Carney avoided giving a definitive answer, but the administration's take so far has been: Be patient.
The rollout of the website is only three weeks old, and there’s still plenty of time before enrollment deadlines arrive, the thinking goes.
But concern is growing. “The administration should make clear whether, and under what circumstances, it might delay the tax penalty for people who are unable to buy insurance through the exchanges,” a Bloomberg View editorial said Monday.
Under the law, Americans must sign up for insurance by early in 2014 – or owe a tax penalty. In effect, the practical enrollment deadline for people buying health insurance on new exchanges is mid-February. The exchanges opened Oct. 1, and people hoping to have coverage in place on Jan. 1 need to be enrolled by Dec. 15.
So there is time. But Mr. Obama gave no clear word Monday about how long the website fix might take, and some specialists working on the project have said the process could drag into late this year or longer, according to The New York Times.
Calling the problems a “website” issue is an understatement. This is a data-processing job of mammoth scale and considerable complexity. It involves recording and verifying information from millions of Americans. It involves relaying that enrollment data to private insurance companies across the nation. And it involves cooperating with more than a dozen states that have chosen to operate their own health insurance exchanges.
One insurance firm, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Nebraska, "had to hire temporary workers to contact new customers directly to resolve inaccuracies in submissions," while "Medical Mutual of Ohio said one customer had successfully signed up for three of its plans," according to The Wall Street Journal.
“The Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” Obama said Monday, as he sought to defend the law.
That's true in that the law isn’t fundamentally about online signups. And the government is offering ways to sign up, other than the website.
But the website woes do play into the hands of critics trying to raise doubts about whether the law is a "train wreck."
“When the administration blows this kind of big project it only corroborates Republicans’ feverish arguments that government cannot do anything efficiently,” the Bloomberg editorial said.
For Obama, some estimate of how long the fixes might take would be a good first step.
Even some Democratic supporters of Obamacare are talking about the possible need for some deadline relief.
In a letter sent to the president Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire suggested extending the open enrollment period, in the interest of making the law a success. She also asked the White House to clarify how the “individual responsibility penalty [for people who don't buy insurance] will be administered and enforced” in light of the website’s difficulties.
The Obama administration scheduled a briefing for Wednesday with House Democrats on the technical problems, Reuters reported.
The administration also announced that Jeffrey Zients, a former business leader who worked for Obama at the Office of Management and Budget, will help guide the "tech surge" aimed at solving the problems as soon as possible.