When a White House faces a political crisis, one of the first decisions presidential aides must make is when to get its side of the story out. Too early, and the Administration comes off as evasive or dislocated from the issue. Too late, and the narrative becomes too ingrained in the American psyche to change. In the two months since the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges launched, the Obama White House has struggled to balance the two priorities, but not any longer.
“While we strive to innovate and improve our outreach and systems for reaching consumers,” representatives from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) wrote in a report released early on Sunday, “we believe we have met the goal of having a system that will work smoothly for the vast majority of users.”
After weeks of denying interviews and doling out small, minute bites of information, the White House is pulling back the curtain to give reporters their take on how the Obamacare website failed so spectacularly — and most important for them, the steps they are taking to fix it. The Administration is now cooperating on the spate of “ticktocks” and profiles detailing previously undisclosed efforts to fix the law. The New York Times was given access to the HealthCare.gov “war room.” The Times and the Associated Press took “strolls” with chief of staff Denis McDonough around the South Lawn of the White House.
“Bottom line: HealthCare.gov on Dec. 1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1,” said Jeff Zients, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget and future Obama economic aide, who was brought in to manage the salvage of the website, on a conference call with reporters.
The Administration’s push comes as its “end of November” deadline for fixing the troubled website expired, and the results are mixed. According to CMS, which runs the website, error rates and response times have been significantly reduced, while capacity has been increased to handle 50,000 concurrent visitors and 800,000 visitors per day. More than 400 software fixes have been made as “private-sector velocity” in the parlance of the Administration. But it is still a work in progress, even as the Administration claims they’ve met their goal of having the site work for 80% of users. Core functionality of the site still needs to be built in the coming months, and it is far from a completely stable platform. The site still suffers from long periods of planned downtime as engineers install and test software patches, and hundreds of fixes still need to be made.
On Friday, America’s Health Insurance Plans president and CEO Karen Ignagni released a statement saying that while the website is getting better, insurers still have concerns.
“Until the enrollment process is working from end to end, many consumers will not be able to enroll in coverage,” she said. “In addition to fixing the technical problems with HealthCare.gov, the significant ‘back-end’ issues must also be resolved to ensure that coverage can begin on Jan. 1, 2014. In particular, the ongoing problems with processing ‘834’ enrollment files need to be fixed.”
Indeed, as the deadline approached, the Administration appeared to dial back on its pledge, explaining that for some people, the website will never work: those who still suffer technical issues, those who aren’t sufficiently financially or technically literate to navigate the site alone, and those with complicated personal situations that will need one-on-one assistance over the phone or in person.
As frustrated Democrats turn their sights on the law, and Republicans gleefully attack the Administration’s management failures, the fact that they can’t point to a complete success will undoubtedly complicate the White House’s political task in the weeks and months ahead. “That will be an annoyance,” a senior White House official told TIME last month, who added it will be a “distraction.” “I can just tell you what Twitter will say on Dec. 1,” the official added. “Some person will have a problem and will be on the Today show the next day. That’s going to happen. And that is not a problem you can manage for.”
Here’s the full CMS report on the website fixes: