He Said, They Said: Scrambling to Frame the Obamacare Web Snafu

Posted October 21, 2013 at 6:04pm

Congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama have the same aspiration for this week: Focus the national conversation on implementation of the health care law.

They look to be getting their rare shared wish. With the Senate in recess and the House meeting for just two days, the void created by this fall’s budget ceasefire is packed with arguments about the meaning of the government’s flawed online medical coverage marketplace.

The more persuasive side could gain an important leg up in the 2014 midterm campaign, which has just 54 weeks to go. The same goes for the political party that does the better job framing a clear health care message and then sticking with it consistently.

The president went on offense Monday, taking to the Rose Garden to tout his signature legislative achievement for the first time since the rollout’s severe limitations became apparent.

“Let me remind everybody that the Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” Obama said, before launching another review of the law’s politically popular provisions (preventive care expansions, parental coverage for young adults, discounted prescriptions for the elderly) for the 85 percent of Americans who already have insurance. And for those now required to buy a policy, “the health insurance that’s available to people is working just fine,” Obama declared, with lower prices and more choices than even he expected.

Only then did he concede the embarrassingly widespread problems with crashing, slowness, navigation, calculations and customer record accuracy that have made HealthCare.gov infamous during its first three weeks.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Obama said, noting that, “Nobody is more frustrated than I am” that one of the greatest social safety net expansions in half a century has become tangled in a thicket of faulty and minimally tested computer code.

The president promised to do “everything we can possibly do”— including assembling new teams of outside computer experts to work around the clock — to make the website run right. In the interim, he said, the government would ramp up old-school methods (such as telephone call centers, paper forms) for signing people up for coverage.

Because the shutdown and debt standoffs minimized coverage of the website’s flaws, Obama’s team now has a second chance to make a first impression ahead of two important dates: Dec. 15 is the deadline for getting coverage that starts Jan. 1, and March 31 is the end of this year’s open enrollment.

The rapidly growing expectation, which the White House didn’t discourage Monday, is that the enrollment system’s balkiness has already made it unfair — and politically foolish — for the administration to impose any penalties for failure to get coverage in the first year. That could effectively delay the individual mandate’s bite until the filing of tax returns in 2016, which, coincidentally, is similar to one of the proposals House Republicans proffered during the government shutdown.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 7 million people would gain coverage under the federal and state exchanges in their opening year. Half a million applications have been made so far. How quickly the debugging is finished will determine how close Obama gets to the CBO’s target. The answer may not be clear before spring, when it will go a long way to determining how many Democratic incumbents will be standing steadfastly by or running away from their vote for the bill back in 2010.

Some of the president’s most powerful friends on the Hill are now signaling to rank-and-file Democrats that it’s OK to be as critical of the rollout as Obama has been. “What has happened is unacceptable in terms of the glitches,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois gave another important signal of Democratic restiveness, declaring on “Fox News Sunday” that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would ultimately have to appear before Congress to answer a welter of unfriendly questions from both sides about the false start. (On Monday she said she would appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but not as soon as the panel’s GOP majority wants.)

Republicans, by contrast, remain as unified as ever in deriding the law as flawed beyond saving — even as they labor to repair the rift over whether their shutdown strategy to defund the law was a fool’s errand and strive to avoid a new civil war about when, if ever, to take another run at repeal. Many are lamenting that, in hindsight, they would have been better off waiting to pursue their undermine-Obamacare strategy after the website’s flaws had been exposed. Of course, the widespread publicity of those flaws didn’t start until after Congress ended the government shutdown and took a debt default off the table.

Republicans are for now able to claim credibly that spending $400 million and coming up with an interface much worse than an average e-commerce website is evidence the Obama administration is some combination of incompetent and spendthrift. The party’s next challenge is to decide how to frame the snafu as illuminating problems that will remain even after the Big Reboot.

Two lines of attack surfaced this week.

“The website does serve as stark evidence that the federal government is ill-equipped to centrally manage our nation’s health care,” declared House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

“The president is right: This law is more than a website that won’t work,” said GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “It’s a Washington mandate that many Americans are finding impossible, and it’s an historic mistake that is raising premiums, forcing employees off insurance plans, increasing out-of-pocket costs and pushing employers to cut jobs and hours.”

Combine those sentiments into one even simpler campaign slogan, and the GOP could win this battle yet.