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Health Website Deadline Nears

November 27, 2013
The Wall Street Journal
Colleen McCain Nelson

With the clock ticking toward a Saturday deadline, Obama administration officials promise that the HealthCare.gov website will work better. Exactly how much better? That is hard to say.

The measure of success, repeated by an array of administration officials, is that the online marketplace intended to be used by millions of Americans to obtain health insurance would be working smoothly for the "vast majority of users" by Saturday, the last day of November.

Last week, President Barack Obama appeared to lower the bar, saying the website would be functioning for "the majority of people who are using it." Vice President Joe Biden offered his own take, saying that the administration would get HealthCare.gov fixed, "God willing." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney suggested an acceptable result would be that eight in 10 people who log onto HealthCare.gov would successfully enroll, while the remaining 20% could encounter technical problems or ultimately decide to pursue another enrollment method.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in the latest pronouncement, said Tuesday: "We are definitely on track to have a significantly different user experience by the end of this month."

Mrs. Sebelius added that she wouldn't hesitate to recommend that people go to HealthCare.gov to sign up for health insurance—a marked change from the day last month when the president stood in the Rose Garden and urged people to call a toll-free number while asking for patience with the site.

On Monday, Mr. Obama referred to HealthCare.gov as "this darn website." But he offered a more upbeat view Tuesday in California, touting improvements to the site. "The website is continually working better, so check it out," he said.

After setting a deadline to fix the website, administration officials have offered largely inexact measures of success, expressed with varying degrees of confidence. That has prompted Republicans to accuse the White House of moving the goal posts, making it difficult to determine whether the objective has been met. Meanwhile, some Democrats have fretted that even a vague but optimistic goal might have been too much to promise.

The administration announced its self-imposed deadline Oct. 25, as it became clear that problems plaguing the site went beyond the "glitches" initially described by the president and would require an all-hands-on-deck repair effort. The White House tapped Jeffrey Zients, a trusted Obama adviser, to lead the effort, and he declared that HealthCare.gov was fixable.

Officials have cautioned that the website still won't work perfectly next week, and insurers say errors remain in the data they are receiving on new enrollees. But administration officials say HealthCare.gov would be able to accommodate more than 800,000 visits per day.

Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), said that if the site continues to malfunction next week and beyond, Democratic lawmakers will face increasing pressure to do something. That could include extending the enrollment period or putting off penalties included in the Affordable Care Act for those without insurance. For now, Democrats on Capitol Hill are waiting to see whether the White House can deliver on its promise.

"There's rising concern on the Hill that's been building for a while, but most everyone hopes and expects that things will get turned around once they get the website up and running," he said. "The core of support for the law is still there."

Even Republicans seemed less inclined in recent days to zero in on specific technical issues. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), said Republicans aren't focused on the website but instead plan to underscore what he calls longer-term problems.

In recent days, GOP lawmakers have highlighted higher premiums some consumers are facing, while backers of the law point to some favorable enrollment figures in states such as California and New York that are running their own health-insurance exchanges.

Mr. Buck said the House would look at bills that could break up the Democratic coalition supporting the Affordable Care Act. "We're going to keep taking targeted strikes at the law legislatively," he said. Earlier this month, more than three dozen Democrats voted for a GOP plan to change the law to allow insurers to keep selling older health plans that don't comply with the law's mandates for a year.

Sen. Tim Scott (R., S.C.) said he expected more problems. "We haven't even started talking about paying claims, answering tough questions. This is just getting started," he said.

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