Legislation

This Week Obamacare Finally Turned the Corner


President Obama speaks about health care during the White House Youth Summit on Dec. 4

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Obama speaks about health care during the White House Youth Summit on Dec. 4

Since the government shutdown ended nearly two months ago, the failure of healthcare.gov has dominated the news. It has unquestionably hurt Democrats and imperiled their control of the Senate after next year’s elections, and it’s driven President Obama’s approval ratings so low that one Wall Street analyst even predicted that the president might resign (lol!).

By now, many media outlets are so conditioned to the Obamacare-is-failing meme that it’s difficult for them to process countervailing evidence. So it’s worth noting that a series of events this week made it clear that Obamacare almost certainly is not going to collapse or be repealed—and that, looking back, we may come to think of this week as the point at which Obamacare finally turned the corner.

Here’s why:

1. Healthcare.gov is mostly working. Sure, it’s spotty, and it isn’t as reliable as Apple or Amazon, as Obama foolishly suggested it would be. But the series of fixes and debugging that culminated with the Nov. 30 soft relaunch seems to have vastly improved the site’s capacity—enough so that 100,000 people were able to sign up in November and 29,000 people in the first two days of December. Remember, only 26,000 signed up in all of October. It’s true that the epic rollout problems, some of which endure, make it unlikely that the administration will meet its goal of 7 million signups. But the ratio of who signs up—getting enough young people is vital to the law’s success—is more important than the overall number.

2. Republicans are quietly bailing on repeal. One of the big questions when the shutdown ended and the scope of the problems with the federal exchange website became clear was whether Republicans would run the same play when current government funding runs out on Jan. 15. After all, one big strategic failure of the effort to defund Obamacare was that it was conducted before the exchanges opened on Oct. 1—so all the claims about how terrible it would be were hypothetical. The website’s problems provided a kind of justification-in-hindsight for the shutdown crowd, who, one might presume, would be eager to try again now that their warnings have come to fruition. Not so: As the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein reported on Monday, Republicans have decided not to demand defund or an individual mandate delay in exchange for a new bill funding the government.

3. The big remaining problems mostly affect insurers—but they won’t bail on the law. The frantic campaign to fix healthcare.gov has so far focused mostly on the “front end” user experience, which has obviously improved. But big problems remain on the back end, where the website must interact with insurers to properly transmit what are called enrollees’ “834 files”—the personal data insurers need to get them signed up. There were clear signs that this remained a serious problem even as the other issues were getting fixed. For one thing, insurers were griping about it to reporters; for another, the administration repeatedly refused to give reporters any sense of the error rate. On Friday morning, the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn got the big scoop that the 834 error rate is down to 10 percent. That’s lower than most people assumed. But even a higher rate, while problematic, probably wouldn’t have been fatal. That’s because insurers have spent the last three years reorienting their business in anticipation of the law. They were unlikely to bail in any situation—and they’re even less likely to now.

There will undoubtedly be many more snafus. Maybe the website won’t be able to handle the end-of-the-year rush of enrollees. Maybe doctor scarcity will become the next big headache for the law’s supporters. But this week made clear that repeal is dead. Until Republicans agree on an alternative and show signs that they can win back the White House, the attacks on the law are better thought of as a mechanism to improve the GOP’s showing in next year’s elections and not a true threat to Obamacare.

Green_190
Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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