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Inside the Beltway: It’s the cookie monster that’s besetting health care sign-up

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At long last, a methodical IT guru actually subjected himself to the trials and tribulations of the faulty Obamacare sign-up site to reveal the true source of its design challenges, which could take 30 days to fix.

"Stay away from Healthcare.gov for at least another month if you can. Hopefully, that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they've made," advises Consumer Reports in a public advisory, also noting that the site was plagued by "garbled instructions" and "needlessly complicated" user maneuvers. And, oh, the bane of electronic cookies. They are the culprits, according to software tester Ben Simo, who analyzed the site for the consumer group.

"If you log in to Healthcare.gov and get nothing but a blank page, what's likely happening is that in your previous visits to Healthcare.gov, your browser got loaded up with lots of cookies, bits of data and code that are implanted for later retrieval and use by Healthcare.gov," Mr. Simo told the consumer site.

"The problem is that the cookie files are bigger than what the website can accept back. Yes, a design error. Result: a blank page," he says.

Cookies, for the uninitiated, are potent bits of data used by the host website to track and record a visitor's activity.

"Healthcare.gov. chokes on its own cookies," Mr. Simo observes.

HERE COMES THE FOIA

Picture perfect? Well, no. President Obama's news conference on the sun-dappled White House lawn Monday did not shed much light on the problems of the Affordable Care Act.

"The Rose Garden isn't big enough to fit the millions of American families receiving letters in the mail that the health insurance they like is being canceled or that their premiums and out-of-pocket expenses are going up yet again," says House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

"Obamacare's problem is larger than a website failure, and it will take more than a 'tech surge' to fix it. The website does serve as stark evidence that the federal government is ill-equipped to centrally manage our nation's health care," the Virginia Republican notes.

House Speaker John A. Boehner already has said that the Grand Old Party will launch a series of "smart, targeted strikes" against the health care law. And here they come. Like many baffled observers, party officials are eager to see the actual enrollment numbers, the factual revelations that the White House is keeping in house.

The Republican National Committee has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services requesting information on the number of Americans who have enrolled in health insurance through the federal website Healthcare.gov.

The numbers, reason committee Chairman Reince Priebus, will reveal the true, ineffective status of the site.

"Really, it's telling that they don't want to give out any numbers. This is an administration that never misses an opportunity to brag. They've previously leaked sensitive national security information to burnish their image. So what are they hiding?" Mr. Priebus asks.

"It's important for Americans to see these numbers because they illustrate just how terrible the system is and how poorly designed the law was. The administration isn't living up to its promises, and they must be held accountable," the chairman adds.

HERE COMES THE LEGISLATION

Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, plans to file legislation delaying the individual mandate under Obamacare until the Government Accountability Office certifies that the Obamacare exchange website actually works.

"It is not fair that next year Americans will be punished for not buying Obamacare when the website they are supposed to buy it on doesn't work," the Florida Republican says. "The legislation, which will be introduced when the U.S. Senate reconvenes next week, would delay the individual mandate until six months after the GAO certifies the websites and all other sign-up options — phone, mail, fax — are fully functional," Mr. Rubio explains. "Thereafter, it exempts people from paying the mandate fines if they can prove that they tried to sign up but could not because of technical or customer service issues."

THERE GOES THE MONEY

In exactly 10 weeks, it will be 2014. Republicans should consider that Organizing for America, the aggressive grass-roots group that grew out of President Obama's 2012 campaign, has accrued $21 million in donations since January.

"The nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of President Obama's agenda, raked in another $7.7 million during the third quarter of 2013, bringing its total for the year to nearly $21 million so far," reports Brandon Conradis, an analyst for Open Secrets, a watchdog blog that tracks campaign donations.

"The top donor this quarter was Getty Oil heiress Anne Getty Earhart, who gave $150,000," he says, noting other $100,000 contributors in the same time period. They are Silicon Valley software maven Evan Goldberg, Olan Mills II — yes, the heir to the portrait photography franchise — and — Ian Simmons, the husband of Hyatt Hotels heiress Liesel Pritzker Simmons.

The uber donors this year are Fred Eychaner, CEO of Newsweb, and David Shaw, founder of the hedge fund DE Shaw & Co. Each, each gave $500,000.

IT'S COMPLICATED

"When we're together, we live together. Partly in Washington, partly in Charleston. Now it's difficult, but until last year he would come to Buenos Aires."

So says Maria Belen Chapur, the fiancee of Rep. Mark Sanford, South Carolina Republican and former governor of the Palmetto State, on their relationship.

"We met in 2001 in Uruguay and for 10 years we were friends. It was strictly friendship. In fact, I would get a Christmas card with their family photo. You can see the mails and there's nothing more there but friendship," Ms. Chapur told Infobae, a media company in her native Argentina.

The lawmaker divorced his wife, Jenny Sanford, in 2008. Ms. Chapur is a divorced mother of two who was a TV journalist and still writes an occasional column.

POLL DU JOUR

56 percent of Americans say the problem with the online rollout of Obamacare is a "sign of broader problems"; 83 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats agree.

40 percent overall say the problem is "an isolated incident"; 16 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats agree.

53 percent overall disapprove of the way President Obama in handling implementation of the new health care law; 88 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats agree.

41 percent overall approve of the way Mr. Obama is handling the implementation; 11 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats agree.

49 percent overall oppose the new law; 69 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats agree.

46 percent overall support the law; 28 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats agree.

Source: An ABC News/Washington Post poll of 1,002 U.S. adults conducted Oct. 17 to 20.

Happy talk, churlish remarks to jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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