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11.28.13

Beware, Republicans: HealthCare.gov Will Rise Again

OK, the Obamacare site should have worked right away. But it’s getting better every day, especially now that the man who saved ‘cash for clunkers’ is on the case.

As you spare a moment for the truly needy this Thanksgiving—you do do that, right?—I doubt you’ll be giving a thought to the techies working around the clock to fix HealthCare.gov. 

But with or without your good will, they’ll be working. And while the site isn’t going to be perfect by the administration’s self-imposed deadline of November 30, it has undergone tremendous improvements and will continue to. I’ve watched Republicans these last couple of days actually being idiotic enough to say in public that the Iran accord is a “distraction” that attempts to divert attention from the disaster that is Obamacare. Well, the Iran deal is a lot more than a distraction, and starting next week, Obamacare is going to be a lot less of a disaster than it was—and I wonder if Republicans have given thought to where this all might leave them six months from now.

Before I describe the systems and capacities now in place at the website, let me stipulate that yes, the people at Health and Human Services should have had all this taken care of two months ago. As I’ve written before, I don’t blame HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, nor do I blame Marilyn Tavenner, the Medicare and Medicaid administrator who’s walking point on all this. I blame Obama. Sure, in a way one blames them all, but this was his name and his legacy, and he should have been in people’s faces making sure this stuff was all on track.

“The site will get better day by day, month by month, and we will continue to improve it.”

Well, he wasn’t, and it wasn’t. But now...the media still tend to focus on the snafus, another of which occurred for about an hour Monday. But by and large, an HHS official tells me, things really have improved. On October 1, the average response time of a page on the site was eight seconds. Last week it was under one second. On October 1, the error rate—the number of pages that wouldn’t load because of some kind of error—was 6 percent. Last Friday it was .75 percent. The site is now ready, I’m told, to handle 50,000 users at any given time, and by December 1 will be able to accommodate 800,000 visits a day. That’s about as many people as visit The Daily Beast every day, and we’re one of the most highly-ranked digital news sites on the web. And keep in mind that Healthcare.gov, by definition, has to be a lot more complicated, making different calculations about eligibility for nearly every person who visits.

“There will not be a magic moment at the end of the month,” this official says. “The site will get better day by day, month by month, and we will continue to improve it.” Jeffrey Zients is the man making it happen. You’ll be hearing more regularly from Zients next year, when he takes over from Gene Sperling as director of the National Economic Council. That job will put him in the unhappy position of having to talk to Republicans about the budget. At least now he only has to talk to bureaucrats about computers.

Zients, who worked under Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget, was somehow always the guy tasked with taking on tough assignments and making sure things worked, says Kenneth Baer, his former OMB colleague. When the “Cash for Clunkers” program was stalled, Zients straightened it out. When a great backlog grew in the processing of GI Bill claims, Zients winnowed it down. “He knows process,” Baer says. “He knows how to assess a situation. And he knows how to manage people. People like Jeff.”

He clearly should have been there in August. But he’s there now. He’s not going to make everything perfect. And true, the website is only one issue. But it is the most visible piece of the law to most people. And if it gets sorted out—if there are essentially no new or ongoing news stories about the website disaster by January, and they’re even replaced by a few surprised, positive stories—the public view of the law will start to change. And even if the media isn’t paying as much attention, people will hear from neighbors and co-workers that they went on the website, and hey, it was actually fairly easy, and it worked.

The Republicans’ response to the Iran announcement has been about two things: one, it’s Munich; two, it’s an attempt to make people stop thinking about Obamacare, as if a historic announcement that’s the product of a year’s worth of secret negotiations was nothing more than a diversionary tactic. Saying “Munich” is just a reflex that they can’t help and will never stop. But the Obamacare invocation is one I think they may really come to regret by next November. It’s all they have, and it’s obviously what they want to make next year’s elections about.

But what if the big problems are fixed by then, and Obamacare is working pretty well? There remains no excuse for the problems of October. But by next spring or summer, it may be someone else sputtering for excuses.