- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2013

Skeptical Republicans and hopeful Democrats alike brushed aside the glowing report card on repairs to HealthCare.gov issued by the Obama administration Sunday, with lawmakers on both sides acknowledging the president’s team has tougher work ahead.

The Department of Health and Human Services said Sunday that it met the Dec. 1 deadline imposed by President Obama to fix major glitches plaguing HealthCare.gov. since the website’s nationwide debut two months ago.

Jeff Zients, a management consultant tapped by the White House to oversee the repair effort, said traffic on HealthCare.gov has increased.

“HealthCare.gov, on Dec. 1, is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1,” Mr. Zients said in a Sunday conference call with reporters.

But lawmakers — even Democrats — were wary.

“Clearly, the rollout has been a disaster, and it’s still a work in progress,” former Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

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The website faces its toughest test yet as consumers who encountered early problems return to HealthCare.gov before the Dec. 23 enrollment deadline to gain coverage by Jan. 1. Whether the website can handle another rush of users remains an open question.

Mr. Bayh said “the jury is still out” on the program’s long-term prospects but added, “First impressions tend to be lasting, so it’s going to take some time in the court of public opinion to turn this thing around.

“There are going to be more dislocations coming,” said Mr. Bayh, who voted for the Affordable Care Act. “Co-pays may go up, your doctor bill may go up, people may have their coverage dropped and have to go on the exchanges. That’s going to be disconcerting, so short term: troubling. It may be really problematic for the 2014 midterm elections.”

Former Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who also voted for the bill, was more optimistic. “The rollout has been a mess, it’s hopefully better today, but what will matter is in six months or whatever the right time frame is: Will there be enough people across the spectrum from sick to healthy in the exchanges to create a competitive market so that the price of health care is affordable to those who have very little or no money?” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”

She added, “I’m betting that it will work.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, cited the Massachusetts health care reform signed into law by Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, as an example of an effective program.

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“This is not from my point of view an ideal plan, but this is what passed the Congress and this is the law, and Romney did something very similar in Massachusetts, and it’s worked very well,” Mr. Dean said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think we ought to make this thing work.”

A CNN/ORC International poll released Friday found that 59 percent of Americans surveyed agreed that “things are going badly,” up from 53 percent in September and 50 percent in April.

Mr. Dean said speculation that the poll numbers reflect on Mr. Obama’s competence is “nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense,” countered former Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican. “Massachusetts, by the way, has the highest insurance rates in country, so for all the ‘good’ it does, people pay a lot, and that’s what you’re going to see. When this website eventually gets fixed, the problems really begin for this administration.”

Mr. Santorum predicted that Obamacare’s worst days are still ahead, saying the insurance plans offered have few doctors and hospitals in their networks, meaning that those who enroll on the federal health insurance exchange will have fewer options for medical care.

“Why? Because this bill set prices at such levels that doctors and hospitals, particularly the ones that are in high demand, do not participate in these programs,” said Mr. Santorum, who lost to Mr. Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

One of the House’s most powerful Republicans, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the administration still hasn’t proved the site is secure.

“The security of this site and the private information does not meet even the minimal standards of the private sector, and that concerns me,” said Mr. Rogers, who leads the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “I don’t care if you’re for it or against it, Republican or Democrat, we should not tolerate the sheer level of incompetence securing this site.”

The Affordable Care Act would have a better chance of succeeding if Republicans would stop criticizing it and give it their support, said Mr. Dean. The bill was approved in 2009 by House and Senate Democrats with no Republican votes.

“For once, we ought to pull together and try to make this thing work. It can work,” said Mr. Dean, who is a physician. “Look, I was just as much of a critic of this bill as anybody else, but I think we ought to pull together and make the thing work, and I think it can work. I think 30 million more Americans are going to have health insurance, and there’s more work to be done.”

Obamacare enrollment barely crested at 100,000 on the federal portal and state-run exchanges during the first month, raising serious questions about whether the administration can meet its projected goal of 7 million enrollees by the end of open enrollment on March 31.

State-run exchanges reported a surge in enrollment during November, but it’s unclear whether the federal system will be able to match their success stories.

“The status of HealthCare.gov in October was marked by an unacceptable user experience,” Sunday’s report acknowledged. “Consumers were experiencing slow response times and frequent, inexplicable error messages. The website experienced frequent outages. For some weeks in the month of October, the site was down an estimated 60 percent of the time.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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