After tough week, White House buys time for Obamacare website fix

A busy screen is shown on the laptop of a Certified Application Counselor as he attempted to enroll an interested person for Affordable Care Act insurance, known as Obamacare, at the Borinquen Medical Center in Miami, Florida. Credit: Reuters
A busy screen is shown on the laptop of a Certified Application Counselor as he attempted to enroll an interested person for Affordable Care Act insurance, known as Obamacare, at the Borinquen Medical Center in Miami, Florida.
Credit: Reuters

President Barack Obama promised on Saturday that his troubled healthcare website was just weeks away from a cure as he struggled to convince Americans he is on top of what has become a self-inflicted wound to his signature first-term achievement.

His administration unveiled a plan on Friday to make Obamacare insurance marketplaces on healthcare.gov – a website riddled with error messages, long delays and bugs – work better by the end of November.

It was the end to an embarrassing week where Obama discovered he had overshot on an Oct 1. promise of a website that would make shopping for health insurance as easy as buying “a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon.”

“As you may have heard, the site isn’t working the way it’s supposed to yet,” Obama said in his weekly Saturday address – an understatement after days of reports of people being shut out of the system.

“In the coming weeks, we are going to get it working as smoothly as it’s supposed to,” he added.

Obama had stood firm against Republican attempts to defund or delay the healthcare law, known popularly as Obamacare – efforts that led to a 16-day government shutdown this month.

He and his top officials had warned publicly before October 1 that there could be “glitches,” but the White House has been scrambling to control the damage from a rollout that was far worse than expected.

The depth of the design flaws has raised questions about why the Obama administration was so insistent on starting the enrollments on October 1 when the system was clearly not ready – and laid bare the president’s mistake in raising expectations about how good the website was going to be.

“Either they made assumptions that were too optimistic and were caught off guard, or they knew that the difficulties would be greater than the public understood, but chose not to say so,” said Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution expert who was a domestic policy adviser to Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“It may be some of both.”

CRISIS MANAGEMENT 101

Obama adviser Jeffrey Zients, appointed on Tuesday to figure out how to manage the complicated fixes for the website, was an unannounced participant on a conference call with health reporters on Friday afternoon.

Zients gave a deadline, although he cautioned there was a lot of work to do. “By the end of November, healthcare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users,” he said.

Borrowing from the lexicon of homebuilders, Zients said he had hired a “general contractor” to manage the many contractors on the project, and developed a “punch list” of dozens of problems to address.

The message followed classic corporate crisis management strategy, said Peter LaMotte, a senior vice president at Levick, a firm that devises communications strategies for large corporations and organizations.

“State the facts, be clear, be transparent, and then shut up,” LaMotte said. “That is what we often recommend to our clients.”

That deadline buys the administration and tech experts time to iron out the bugs in the website before millions of Americans give up trying to use it, LaMotte said.

But he added, “People are going to hold you to that date.”

Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the date was “comforting” because it came from Zients, who is known for being a “straight shooter” with private-sector management expertise.

“He’s not making it up. It does not serve his interests to pick a date without a clue as to whether you can make it,” Ornstein said, noting Zients would become Obama’s top economic adviser at the White House on January 1.

“His credibility is at stake here,” Ornstein said.

POLITICAL BREATHING ROOM

Republicans are using the problems to push for a delay to the requirement that Americans buy insurance by March 31.

“Despite hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars invested, the website still does not work for most,” Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in the Republican reply to Obama’s Saturday address.

Upton’s panel will grill Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a hearing next week.

Zients’ Friday announcement will take some pressure off Sebelius in the hearing, said John Ullyot, who works on crisis communications as a managing director at High Lantern Group.

But Ullyot, a former Senate Republican aide, said the plan would have had more punch had it been presented earlier in the week by the “much louder megaphone” of either Sebelius or Obama.

“They had a full week of drip, drip, drip in the media, and you never want to have that,” he said.

Once the website is fixed, officials will face another communications challenge. They will need to concentrate on luring back to the site those people who gave up trying to access it in the initial phases, said a former Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I think that people are going to like the site and sign up for it. The problem is once a user has a bad experience at a website, they’re not usually going to want to go back to it,” the official said.


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