A crucial weekend for the troubled Web site that is the backbone of US President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul appears to be off to a shaky start, as the US government took the HealthCare.gov site offline for an unusually long maintenance period into yesterday morning.
Just hours before the deadline imposed by the Obama administration to get the insurance shopping Web site working for the “vast majority” of its users by yesterday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it was taking down the Web site for an 11 hour period that would end at 8am EST yesterday.
It was unclear whether the extended shutdown of the Web site — about seven hours longer than on typical day — represented a major setback to the Obama administration’s high-stakes scramble to fix the portal that it hopes eventually will enroll about 7 million uninsured and under-insured Americans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
At the very least, the shutdown suggested that nine weeks after the Web site’s disastrous launch on Oct. 1 prevented most applicants from enrolling in coverage and ignited one of the biggest crises of Obama’s administration, US officials are nervous over whether Americans will see enough progress in the Web site to be satisfied.
For the administration and its Democratic allies, the stakes are enormous.
The healthcare overhaul is Obama’s signature domestic achievement, a program designed to extend coverage to millions of Americans and reduce healthcare costs. To work, the program must enroll millions of young, healthy consumers whose participation in the new insurance exchanges is key to keeping costs in check.
After weeks of round-the-clock upgrades of software and hardware, Obama officials said they were poised to successfully double its capacity by this weekend, to be able to handle 50,000 insurance shoppers at one time.
However, if the Web site does not work for the “vast majority” of visitors this weekend as the administration has promised, uninsured Americans from 36 states could face problems getting coverage by an initial Dec. 23 deadline.
It also could create ripples that extend to next year’s elections when control of the US House of Representatives (now controlled by Republicans) and the Senate (now led by Democrats) will be up for grabs.
Obama’s fellow Democrats who are up for re-election in Congress already have shown signs of distancing themselves from the president and his healthcare program. If the Web site does not show significant improvement soon, some Democrats — particularly the dozen US senators who are from states led by conservative Republicans and who are up for re-election next year — might call for extending Obamacare’s final March 31 enrollment deadline into next year.
That would delay the fines that are mandated by the law for those who do not have insurance by that date, a scenario that insurers say would destabilize the market. It also would fuel Republicans’ arguments that Obamacare, and its Web site, are fatally flawed and should be scrapped.
In broader political terms, the Web site’s immediate success has become vital to Obama’s credibility, which polls indicate has been tarnished by the site’s problems, as well as Obama’s admission that he overreached in promising that everyone who liked their healthcare plan would be able to keep it under the new law.