In a new low point for President Barack Obama and another ding against his signature domestic achievement, only 26,000 Americans signed up for health insurance plans in the month that the federal government’s troubled website has been open for business.
When figures from state-run exchanges are included, more than 106,000 Americans selected plans during the Affordable Care Act’s first month of open enrollment. Still, that number, combined with the administration’s repeated warnings of low early-enrollment figures, won’t mute the mounting political outcry from both sides of the aisle over the rocky rollout.
The dismal figures are the capstone to a bruising few weeks for Obama and his law – the landmark 2010 legislation which has engendered dogged and constant opposition from its conservative detractors.
Both the president and the law have survived repeated repeal efforts from Republicans in Congress, a Supreme Court challenge, an election staked (in part) on the legislation, and a government shutdown led by GOP attempts to defund it.
But health care reform and the president’s fortunes have arguably never seemed as shaky as they do right now amid the portal’s prolonged technical difficulties and Republican-led outrage over insurance plans that have been canceled because of the Affordable Care Act.
Even the administration’s Democratic allies have begun to exhibit signs of nervousness.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Red State Democrat who’s up for re-election in Louisiana next fall, has proposed a patch to Obamacare that would allow consumers to keep insurance plans threatened by cancellation. The tweak would, in essence, force Obama to make good on his once-stated promise that individuals who like their health care plan could keep it.
The bill, passage of which would represent an embarrassment for Obama, has even won over some administration allies, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. And former President Bill Clinton, whom Obama once dubbed his “explainer in chief,” didn’t help the White House on Tuesday when he endorsed a similar fix.
Senate Democrats will huddle on Wednesday with administration officials to mull a path forward. And White House Press Secretary Jay Carney suggested the administration would propose its own fixes “sooner rather than later.”
But the bleeding hasn’t stopped yet.
The Department of Health and Human Services continues to race against the clock to fix Healthcare.gov by the end of this month. And even if they finish their work by the end of November – which is very much an open question – it will have precluded thousands from enrolling in plans for two whole months.
Carney said that the site is “on track” to be “working smoothly for the vast majority of users” by the end of the month. That’s an improvement from the beginning of October, but well short of an ironclad guarantee of the portal’s effectiveness.
Throughout it all, Obama’s approval ratings have plummeted to new lows, suffering from successive crises involving a Republican-led government shutdown and near-default on the national debt, and then the struggles of Healthcare.gov.
Republicans are practically giddy at the reversal of fortune, which comes a month after the GOP waged a politically-catastrophic effort to link government funding with changes to Obamacare implementation.
“Obviously, panic has set in on the other side,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters at the Capitol shortly before the enrollment numbers were unveiled.
After taking hits in polling after the shutdown, the GOP continued to press Obamacare as an issue, and now it’s successfully put the administration on the defensive.
The best example came Wednesday as Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled technical officials responsible for the development of Healthcare.gov.
“This wasn't a scaling mistake. This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launch pad,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee’s chairman.
The White House has worked for weeks to cushion the blow they expected to absorb as a result of the low initial enrollment numbers. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius warned a Senate panel last week that the initial numbers would be “very low.”
For its part, the administration had cautioned before the site’s launch and eventual troubles that they expected enrollment to be relatively low in October and November before spiking in December as consumers begin considering their health care options for the next year in earnest.
The numbers could improve in the months to come, and the website could be fixed. And Obama’s political fortunes could rebound with those developments.
But with the midterm elections just a year away, the window of opportunity for Obama to chalk up many more legislative victories is closing quickly. Like most two-term, presidents, he’ll be regarded as a lame-duck after the 2014 elections as the political world’s attention turns to the next presidential election.
With little to show for the past 11 months – and with few expectations of a bipartisan breakthrough in the next 12 – Obama’s legacy is tied even more closely to the success of the Affordable Care Act.
One anonymous House Democratic lawmaker, speaking to NBC’s Luke Russert, summed up the stakes and the nerves at play in Washington.
“They have no ‘Plan B,’ no apparent fix, they're clueless,” the Democrat said as the House nears an end-of-the-week vote on a Republican bill to permit consumers to continue purchasing their current plans, though the coverage is regarded as subpar under health care reform. “They need to figure out something by Friday fast.”