President Obama radiated confidence when he took to the Rose Garden earlier this week to convince Americans that the flaws in the Affordable Care Act website would be fixed.
It's understandable that the president himself might be upbeat about the prospects of resolving the problems currently plaguing the technology behind the law.
But for anyone not named Obama, the apparent scale of the problems seems daunting. And it doesn't fuel a lot of optimism that the websites will be up and running by Dec. 15, the deadline for open enrollment under the new law. And that's despite the president's promised "tech surge" featuring "some of the best IT talent in the entire country," as Obama put it.
The Washington Post reported that experts say the problems need to be fixed by Thanksgiving to keep the program on track. But there are already murmurings the repair project could go past Dec. 15, reports The New York Times. The same story mentioned that potentially 5 million lines of computer code could need rewriting. If that's true, it sounds like it could be the code-writing equivalent of the D-Day invasion — massive, complex and arduous.
Which is not exactly what nervous Democrats want to hear. But they're sure to ask about it at an Obama administration briefing for House Democrats on the health law's travails scheduled for Wednesday morning. (House Republicans are requesting a similar briefing as well.)
For the congressional Democrats whose votes made the Affordable Care Act a reality and who will have to defend their support for the law in the 2014 midterm elections, the problems with the federal website are a political nightmare.
Not only do the website's problems embolden the Republican opposition to the law; they place Democrats on the defensive at a time when the party appears to have the advantage coming out of the shutdown/debt default crises.
Several recent polls suggest that Republicans greatly damaged themselves by forcing the crisis, a self-inflicted wound Democrats are eager to exploit. Some of the more ebullient Democrats even claimed that their chances for retaking the House had improved significantly.
But now there's a chance 2014 could find Democrats conducting their own version of damage control, as a result of the disastrous digital rollout.
They'll be looking for any assurances the White House can provide that the problems with the federal website will be ironed out so that the Obamacare timeline can continue as planned. The critical dates as of now are Dec. 15, when the open enrollment period ends; Jan. 1, when new policies sold by the December deadline are to take effect; and Feb. 15, the last day by which premiums must be paid for those hoping to avoid the individual mandate penalty.
But congressional Democrats may not receive assurances from the White House that those dates will be met. And based on how things have gone so far, they'd probably be skeptical if the White House gave them.
The mood within the Health and Human Services Department, as described in one recent report, probably wouldn't give Democrats reason for optimism. Yuval Levin, who worked on bioethics issues in the George W. Bush White House, talked with officials inside HHS and wrote about it for the conservative National Review last week:
"No one wants to say how long it might take, and no one would share with me what estimates they might be getting from their contractors (whom they no longer trust anyway), but there has so far been relatively little progress and it seems like everyone involved is preparing for a process that will take months, not weeks."
Levin goes on to say that HHS officials seem to be expecting that the enrollment period will be extended to March.
That, of course, could force the administration to do something Republican opponents of the law have asked it to do: delay the individual mandate provision. The mandate requires everyone to be insured by Feb. 15 or pay a penalty.
In short, the people who have some idea of what it takes to fix problems of the scale the Obama administration has ahead of it think it's a mission impossible to get all the needed work done in time to delay a central part of the law.
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