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White House optimistic Obama will bounce back from healthcare glitches

Despite President Obama's sharp drop in the polls, staffers believe a fix to the failed online insurance marketplace will bring healing.

November 16, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons
  • President Obama meets with health insurance executives in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
President Obama meets with health insurance executives in the Roosevelt… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — He's vented, attacked, apologized and adjusted. Now, President Obama has one move left in his attempt to salvage the rollout of his healthcare law: hope the website works soon.

The White House, knowing a functional website is needed to calm its panicky allies, has now entered the wait-and-see period of its triage after the turmoil that has followed the Oct. 1 rollout. With the latest fix to the law unveiled, a bruising House vote behind them and experts working feverishly on the broken website, administration officials believe they may have weathered the worst.

Although Obama's standing in polls and support within his party have dropped sharply, much like the downward trajectory of George W. Bush's second term, White House officials believe he can still recover.

That optimistic assessment depends almost entirely on the administration's ability to reboot healthcare.gov, the once-hyped online insurance marketplace now undergoing extensive repair. At stake are the future of the president's signature domestic achievement, his political standing and reelection prospects for vulnerable Democrats in Congress.

If the administration meets its goal of a mostly glitch-free site by the end of November, the last two months may be remembered as just another near-death experience for a healthcare overhaul that has had many. Even though many insurance executives and congressional Democrats are angry at Obama for his handling of the healthcare law, both groups have strong incentives to help the Affordable Care Act succeed.

But if the White House fails, the recent setbacks could become the beginning of years of trouble for Democrats in office, as well as those seeking to get there, officials concede.

Administration officials privately acknowledge that no argument defending Obamacare will connect with Americans until they begin to see the effects of the law at work. No work-around or temporary fix will reach enough people to build a critical mass of support. The website has to function, admit edgy aides who sometimes spit the word "website" with the contempt familiar to anyone who has ever called a tech help desk.

Obama revealed his own frustrations Thursday, saying at a White House news conference that he has an obligation to show Americans that the law has made health insurance more affordable and accessible — "if we can just get the darn website working and smooth this thing out."

Officials said Friday they were making progress on the site's many glitches and bugs. It now takes less than one second, on average, to load a page, down from eight seconds in the weeks after the launch, said Jeffrey Zients, a former top administration official who was brought back to oversee the repairs. The site can "comfortably" handle 20,000 to 25,000 consumers at the same time and more capacity is being added, he said.

Still, problems persist in the system that sends consumer information to insurers, and as experts have ticked off 200 software problems, more continue to pop up. Zients said the officials expect to make the Nov. 30 goal, but added: "Not all consumers going on the website will have a seamless experience."

While the tech team works, the president must convince his allies as well as his potential adversaries that, as he said Thursday, he's a clutch player who knows how to recover from a fumble.

That group includes insurance executives who were called to the White House on Friday to discuss Obama's answer to the millions of policy cancellation notices sent to surprised consumers. After announcing Thursday that he would allow insurers to rescind those cancellations and extend the policies for another year, the president sought to persuade the executives to take him up on the offer.

The group also includes Democrats on Capitol Hill, many of whom have gone from disgruntled to distrustful of the White House. On Friday, 39 House Democrats voted for the GOP alternative to Obama's extension fix.

That sizable number of largely swing-district lawmakers was only the most visible sign of broader dissatisfaction that makes Obama's current holding pattern a challenge. Even those who stuck with the White House on Friday's vote have expressed frustration. In the wake of Obama's announcement, lawmakers were left to figure out whether their state officials and insurers would go along with the plan. Skepticism was high.

"The message from the White House is, 'OK, you can be mad, it's frustrating. But be on the program,'" said one advisor to a House Democrat, who asked for anonymity while characterizing internal discussions. "But what program is that? The program where every five minutes there's a different plan?"

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