HealthCare.gov Glitches Haven't Hurt Obamacare...Yet

The glitchy roll out of the Affordable Care Act federal health exchange website has had the Obama administration scrambling — for tech support, explanations, patience, and foot soldiers to help spread the word about the president's signature achievement.

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The Obama administration plans to begin daily briefings tomorrow. The reason: to provide updates on its efforts to fix the problem-plagued website for the new government-run health insurance markets. The move comes after days of complaints from opponents and allies alike about the lack of information coming from the White House.

Polls suggest, so far, the site's problems haven't damaged the president's signature health care initiative. But NPR's Scott Horsley reports that could change if the glitches aren't fixed quickly.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Even the most affordable health care coverage isn't much good if customers can't get past the computerized error message to sign up for it. That's presented a juicy target for congressional Republicans who unanimously opposed the president's health care overhaul.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: The rollout of Obamacare is nothing short of a debacle.

HORSLEY: House Republican leader Eric Cantor complained this morning, while the administration offered a briefing about the website's problems to House Democrats, there was no similar explanation given to the GOP.

CANTOR: All we're hearing from the administration, really, is unsatisfactory in terms of answers to the many, many unanswered questions. That is adding to the fear of so many American people. And what's not helping is a lack of transparency on the part of this administration.

HORSLEY: Even former White House insiders say the administration needs to be more upfront about the websites problems and what's being done to fix them. To date, the administration's offered no information about how many people have overcome the obstacles to sign up for health insurance. It's discouraged insurance companies from providing that information themselves and it's announced no timeline for when the website should be working properly.

That official silence could end tomorrow with the new daily briefings. Ezekiel Emanuel, who advised the White House on health care policy during the first two years of the administration, says it's about time.

DR. EZEKIEL EMANUEL: Look, I put it like this - you're sitting on a plane and something has gone wrong, or you're delayed, right? You like to hear immediately from the pilot what the problem is and you like to hear regular updates from the pilot as to how things are progressing and when you can expect to hear the next update. I think the same has to happen regarding this.

HORSLEY: Emanuel, who's a doctor, says he's confident the website will be fixed eventually. And he insists the health care overhaul has a good long-term prognosis.

CANTOR: These are blocking and tackling issues. They're not rocket science issues that's getting a website to work. A year from now, two years from now, this thing is going to be great.

HORSLEY: Emanuel says it's important not to let the website's problems tarnish the overall Obamacare brand. And a new Gallup poll released today shows despite the troubled launch, support for the health care overhaul actually inched up in the last two months, though the program remains deeply divisive.

That ongoing political controversy surrounding Obamacare may have contributed to the website's problems. Robert Blendon, who studies health policy and politics at Harvard, says even the most technocratic decisions about the program have become opportunities for political point-scoring.

ROBERT BLENDON: This remains very polarized in politics. And every announcement that the administration makes turns out to be not an administrative announcement but a win or loss in this battle between the two parties about the future of the law.

HORSLEY: Emanuel suspects that politically charged atmosphere made the administration reluctant to draft final rules for the new health care exchanges during the run-up to the 2012 election. By the time the election was over, there was less than a year to design and test the website for this month's launch. The administration's now under pressure to fix the site in time for people to sign up for coverage early next year and avoid paying a penalty.

Asked by CNN this week when the website should be working properly, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was vague.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Well, as quickly as we can get it fixed.

HORSLEY: Sebelius declined an invitation to answer questions from a congressional committee tomorrow. She is expected to testify next week.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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