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Inside Obama's 'tech surge'

President Obama called in the tech cavalry to fix persistent problems with the Affordable Care Act's health care exchanges.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

President Obama called in the tech cavalry to fix persistent problems with the Affordable Care Act's health care exchanges.

President Obama pledged a "tech surge" on Monday to fix persistent problems with the Affordable Care Act's health care exchange website that have made it all but unusable for many customers.

He offered little detail, however, on the most burning questions surrounding the law. Mainly, what is wrong with the website? How much time and money will it take to fix it? Who is on the "tech surge" team that's looking at it? What happens if it's not working before upcoming deadlines to obtain insurance? And how did such major problems go undetected before the launch? 

Those are uncomforatble questions for a president who is coming off a big win in the government shutdown--a 16-day fiasco where Republicans looked like they couldn't keep the government working. Now Obama's the one who can't even keep a website working. 

In a briefing at the White House, three senior administration officials tried to fill in the gaps for reporters. But they cautioned they couldn't give a much clearer picture than what the president offered until more diagnostic work was done on the website.

"It's just not the nature of computer glitches to say with 100% certainty it will be fixed by x date, it's just not how these kinds of things work," one official said. "Until you get it fixed, it's also impossible to say this is the exact scope of the problem."

They did offer some hints as to their thinking, however. Twice officials pushed back at reporters' questions about hypothetical cases in which the site was still broken in November and December. They also said they did not believe the site had to be fundamentally rebuilt, a nightmare scenario that some experts have floated in the press. One official likened the "tech surge" to bringing firefighters to hose down a blazing house -- in this case the website -- without impacting the house's underlying structure. 

"It's our expectation that these problems will be...that the ability of folks to go through from beginning to end in a single swipe will be sufficiently enhanced by the time we hit November, that, you know folks can go through," another official said.

In general, officials described the next few weeks as an "iterative" process in which the website would improve over time rather than go from broken to fixed in one stroke. 

The site's struggles are a humbling moment for the administration. In similar briefings in July and September leading up to the exchange rollout, senior administration officials projected an unshakable -- even defiant -- confidence regarding the upcoming rollout Those meetings with reporters were held in part to rebut earlier skepticism about the law's readiness after the Obama administration delayed a requirement that businesses with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance to their employees. 

As Obama conceded on Monday, things haven't turned out as planned. And while the president was correct when he said that the Affordable Care Act is "not just a website, it's much more," the law could become a disaster for consumers and insurers alike if the exchanges don't enroll people properly. 

The most dangerous threat isn't that people fail to buy coverage -- though that's a huge problem on its own -- but that the wrong mix of people will do so. The administration set a goal of enrolling 7 million people in the first sign-up period, but officials are watching the ratio of young vs. old applicants more closely. If only older Americans apply, many of whom were barred from affordable coverage due to a pre-existing condition, insurers will raise premiums through the roof to compensate. To keep prices stable, administration officials are counting on 2.7 million of those 7 million enrollees to be 18-35 years old.

If the process to sign up is extremely difficult, however, older and sicker Americans might go the extra mile to obtain much-needed coverage while younger and healthier people get discouraged and fail to sign up in sufficient numbers.

White House officials said Monday that they expected younger people to sign up closer to the deadline to obtain insurance, giving them some time to tweak the website first. In Massachusetts, which implemented a similar exchange under Governor Mitt Romney, overall applications peaked right before residents faced a new requirement to obtain insurance or pay a penalty. 

If that pattern ends up holding true, however, then the site should face another big test in the coming weeks when traffic pops up again.

Officials attributed major early problems to the high volume of users, but said other issues were still being investigated. The program used to verify applications was functioning properly, but they were still working out kinks with the next step, which involves communicating data to insurance companies to finally enroll consumers. While insurers have raised concerns about this aspect of the site, an official said that completed enrollments were starting to go through nd that they have a "high level of confidence in this part of the system."

Officials stressed repeatedly the importance of alternate routes to getting coverage that did not include the website -- not exactly a nod of confidence. The administration is increasing the number of workers at their call centers by 50% during peak hours to help meet demand and consumers can also apply in person through Obamacare "navigators" or by mail.

"The redundancy is huge for us both in terms of the phone and in person," the same official said. "If there was only one way to do this, you know, then obviously we would approach it very very differently."

Those are the policy problems. Politically, the bungled rollout not only breathes new life into flagging GOP attacks on the president's health care law, but undermines the Democrats' brand as the party of competent technocrats fighting the party of anti-government radicals. House Republicans have demanded that HHS Secretary Sebelius answer questions; she and website contractors will appear in Congress to testify on October 30th. 

More importantly, Republicans' determination to undo the law means they are unlikely to agree to play a constructive role in fixing it it turns out the website requires a major new round of funding to fix.

Asked about funding for the "tech surge," an official said they "believe they have all the resources they need to get this done."