White House Optimistic At Deadline To Fix Obamacare

The Obama administration set a self-imposed deadline of the end of November to have the major kinks worked out in HealthCare.gov, the website at the center of implementation for the Affordable Care Act. In the hours before its deadline, the site was taken offline for repairs. But the White House says the site is in much better shape than it was two months ago, when it launched and promptly failed to work for most users.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Today is the day, the Obama administration's self-imposed deadline to fix the troubled HealthCare.gov. Technical problems have bedeviled the website since its debut on October 1st. And an embarrassed president promised the site would be fixed by midnight tonight. HealthCare.gov was taken down last night for a final round of repairs before coming back online this morning.

Here to talk to me about all this is NPR's Mara Liasson. So, Mara, today is the day. The administration needs to repair the damage from the rollout so they don't make it any worse by announcing mission accomplished if things aren't actually up to speed. What can they do to make things right?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, they've been careful not to overpromise again. They've said that the vast majority of users, which is defined as 80 percent of users, would be able to use the website without any problems by today. And they have been working around the clock to get the website working. They fixed more than 300 bugs, according to Jeffrey Zients who's the head of the website fix-it project. And today on the HHS blog - that's the Health and Human Services agency's blog - they said the website was, quote, "performing well with low overall error rates and response times."

So they have gotten it to the point where 50,000 users can use it at once without it crashing. But we don't know what will happen if many more times that number rush to get insurance by the end of the year. We also know that even though the consumer experience has vastly improved from October 1st, the back end of the process, the information going to insurers about who is signed up, still has problems.

RATH: Mm. So there's still a lot at stake. Seven million people need to sign up by March 31st in order for it actually to work.

LIASSON: Yes. And it's not just seven million people, but it's the right mix of seven million people. They need about 35 percent or more to be young healthy people to make the insurance risk pool work. If there are too many older, sicker people, then it gets too expensive, rates go up, people don't sign up. And you go into what insurers call a death spiral. We've heard anecdotal evidence that young people are signing up in larger numbers than they expected, and they're hitting those goals. We've also heard anecdotal evidence that they aren't. So it's going to be a while before we know exactly who is signing up.

There also are going to be a lot of other hurdles that will affect how people feel about the law. There might be rate increases. There might be other disruptions in health care. All of them are going to be pinned on the Affordable Care Act fairly or unfairly by the law's opponents.

RATH: This rollout, it's been so damaging to President Obama, his approval numbers are lower than they've ever been. Do you think he can recover?

LIASSON: I don't know. This was a shattering experience, not just for the president's approval ratings with the public, but also for his relationship with Democrats in Congress, which has been described to me as the worst it's ever been. And Democratic donors are extremely disappointed with the president. This can't be blamed on the Republicans. It was just a failure of competence and execution and credibility. One way for him to fix things is simply to get the website working, sign up those seven million people.

But otherwise, approval of the law will continue to be low, and the pressure on Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns next year to break with the president will be immense.

RATH: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Arun.

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