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We've been looking back at the past year through the prism of numbers. The Obama administration is hoping that millions of Americans will sign up for health insurance on new exchanges by the end of March. But the number we're going to examine today is six. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, that's how many people actually managed to enroll through the Healthcare.gov website back on the first day it opened.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Open enrollment for insurance coverage began October 1. About the only thing that was clear for the first month was that except in a handful of state, things were going anything but smoothly. Federal officials steadfastly refused to release any enrollment numbers until mid November. That led to cries of outrage from political pundits, threats of investigations by members of Congress, and a steady stream of ridicule.
This skit from "Saturday Night Live" that aired October 27 featured Kate McKinnon as embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
KATE MCKINNON: (As Kathleen Sebelius) Millions of Americans are visiting HealthCare.gov. Which is great news. Unfortunately the site was only designed to handle six users at a time.
ROVNER: Little did "SNL"'s writers know how prophetic that line would be. Just days later, notes subpoenaed by the House Oversight Committee found that was precisely how many people successfully navigated the site from beginning to end on HealthCare.gov's opening day, October 1. Drew Altman is president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
DREW ALTMAN: You could not have had a more difficult start for the law.
ROVNER: Altman says the botched rollout had two main impacts. One was on the millions of people actually trying to sign up.
ALTMAN: Because it may have turned off people who wanted to enroll. And we will see how many of those people come back and keep trying.
ROVNER: But even more important, he says, is the political impact of adding still more fuel to an already raging partisan fire.
ALTMAN: It was another blow for the law and so you saw that in the polls, and in our polls support for the law went down, and it is at a lower level now.
ROVNER: Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank, says the damage done by the botched rollout was significant.
DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: This is one of the lessons in politics. If they're laughing at you on the late-night shows, or if Jon Stewart is making fun of you on "The Daily Show," you're in trouble. And they are in trouble.
ROVNER: Indeed, liberal late-night darling Jon Stewart lit out after the website mess on a regular basis during the early weeks.
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JON STEWART: HealthCare.gov is one month old and like most one-month-olds it is still just laying there pooping its pants - and angering anyone that it is not related to.
ROVNER: Stewart conducted one of the first interviews with HHS Secretary Sebelius in October in which he pulled no punches and which was widely considered a debacle by the administration. But he chided Republicans for exaggerating the law's shortcomings and suggesting that going back to the health care system pre-Affordable Care Act would somehow be better.
(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
STEWART: I guess back then you were OK because if you liked not having a doctor, you got to keep not having a doctor. Period.
ROVNER: In other words, the Affordable Care Act had taken over the national conversation in a way it had not since its passage in 2010. Douglas Holtz-Eakin says that a rocky rollout will be difficult for the law to overcome.
HOLTZ-EAKIN: We see in the polling the negatives are stronger; we see among the uninsured, those who would presumably benefit from the program, a confusion and a dislike of the program. It's very difficult to change the image that this is not a good thing and that you want to steer clear of it.
ROVNER: But Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation says the success or failure of the law won't be measured by how well the website works but by how people react to the insurance they're now purchasing.
ALTMAN: And we will see over the next year, really, as people begin to use services, whether they like the deal they got, whether they think the coverage they got is affordable or not.
ROVNER: That six number is already becoming something of a distant memory. More than a half-million people signed up through HealthCare.gov in the first three weeks of December alone. And many major social programs got off to rocky starts. Most are now firmly embedded in the social and political fabric of the nation. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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