October 25, 2013

The administration has now announced that the problems plaguing Obamacare website problems will be mostly resolved by the end of November. Jonathan Cohn reports that on the daily conference call devoted to the law’s problems, point man Jeff Zients announced that he had completed his review of what’s gone wrong and said the site would be running smoothly by that deadline.

This isn’t necessarily all that reassuring, since the administration had also anticipated that things would work very well on October 1st, which obviously didn’t happen. But Cohn came away from the call convinced that the problems are being grappled with in a very serious. clear-eyed way, which could bode well:

Still, the assessment Zients gave over the phone was more candid and detailed than any public accounts administration officials had given previously. He acknowledged, for example, that high volume was one source of trouble for the site — but only one of many. He also explained that the site had two separate series of problems. One group consists of “performance problems”—the issues consumers have encountered, like seeing error messages, delays, and crashes. The other group consists of “functional” issues, which are “bugs” that prevent software from working the way it’s supposed to work. An example of this would be the erroneous data reports that healthcare.gov (like some of the state-run exchanges) have been delivering to insurance companies. Zeints said that problem was at the top of a “punch list” of tasks that need to get done.

Zients also announced that performance has already improved considerably, thanks to repairs HHS and its contractors already made. Initially, he noted, most people could not even get past the initial screens. Now, he said, 90 percent of people who log on are able to create accounts successfully. That’s just one step in the process of obtaining coverage—a point Zeints acknowledged. “It’s going to take a lot of work and some time,” he said, “but there is a clear path forward.”

Obviously if the site is not running well by this self-imposed deadline — which is certainly possible — it will be political Armageddon for Dems. But what happens if the law gets fixed?

As many have pointed out, previous experiences — such as the Massachusetts health reform plan developed by that Mitt Romney fellow – have shown that people tend to sign up very late in the process. See a chart illustrating that phenomenon right here.

As Cohn notes, if the site is working by the end of November, that gives people two weeks until the December 15th deadline to sign up for coverage that will begin at the state of the new year. In addition to that, there will be months left in the enrollment period for those who want coverage that doesn’t begin by January 1st but still allows them to avoid the mandate penalty (whose deadline is March 31st).

The signs are that demand is strong. So, if the site does get fixed, you could conceivably end up with a situation where a lot of people sign up late in the process, just as they might have otherwise done — something approximating the same outcome that might have happened if the problems, and the accompanying sturm und drang, hadn’t ever existed.

That’s what the White House and Dems are hoping for, anyway.

There’s no denying that the possibility remains very real that the site won’t get fixed and that Obama’s long term prospects could be threatened. But how do Republican officials react if it does get fixed? After expressing outrage for weeks on behalf of Americans who have been denied the benefits of Obamacare, thanks to the President’s incompetence, do Republicans simply resume their calls for getting rid of the law — and its benefits for all of those Americans, and many more – entirely?

Of course, there will be an easy way around this problem. They can simply refuse to acknowledge that evidence of the site’s functionality even exists at all.

One thing is certain: If it does look like the site is getting fixed, as the deadline approaches the noise coming from anti-Obamacare forces will be nothing short of deafening. Should be fun.

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UPDATE: A Democrat points out to me — rightly, I suppose — that it might not be true political Armageddon if the site isn’t running smoothly by the end of November, though it would certainly be a very difficult political problem. The real Armageddon would set in if the site isn’t functioning well once the March 31st deadline comes into view.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.