WASHINGTON – By the time President Barack Obama acknowledged on Monday that his signature health care program had serious problems, it was clear the political stakes had escalated for the White House.
And so that evening Obama gathered some of the top political advisers from his first term for a strategy session on a range of topics. The president himself spent little time on how to handle the political fallout, arguing that fixing the problems of HealthCare.gov, the website at the heart of the troubles, would take care of that challenge.
Not everyone agreed it was so simple.
In a separate huddle that night, without the president, some of these former aides — including David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod of the president’s original political brain trust — advanced a different argument to deal with what some of them saw as a looming threat.
Comparing the experience at one point to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they warned senior staffers that they needed a strategy shift — one that involved providing as much information as possible to both Capitol Hill and the media — or risk defections by crucial Democratic lawmakers facing re-election in 2014. Keeping the administration’s allies on board was critical to saving the broader program, so maintaining Democratic cohesion represented a key first step.
By the end of the week, the administration had markedly shifted its approach, opening up more about details of the problems and holding regular news briefings in which officials identified a deadline for fixing the website and the contractor in charge of overseeing the work. They delivered private briefings to Senate staffers and House members, while White House chief of staff Denis McDonough personally called key senators to update them.
The belated turnabout underscored how the White House — which had spent the first two weeks of the rollout focused on reopening the government and averting a debt ceiling crisis and a third week trying to deflect questions as they enlisted help to fix the system — has been forced to scramble to fend off a back-door assault from Democrats on the president’s signature legislative achievement. With sparse information about the website’s problems at the outset, senior administration officials are now working to repair fissures in a party that managed to present a united front until last week.
“The stakes are high because of the politics of it,” said Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly, a White House ally who has criticized the contracting process. “I think the White House understands that it’s important to have transparency, so we’re not unnecessarily eroding confidence in the program.”
For three weeks the administration provided few details about the enrollment system’s operations, including what went wrong and how many consumers were able to enroll. While it is still not releasing enrollment figures or identifying who specifically is repairing the site, by Friday Jeff Zients — the former management consultant and Obama budget official brought in by the White House to oversee the effort — assured reporters it would be functioning smoothly by the end of November.
“It’s going to take a lot of work and some time, but there is a clear path forward,” he said.
Even as the administration launched a more robust defense of the federal health insurance marketplace — dispatching staffers to Capitol Hill for closed-door briefings and firing off memos to lawmakers’ offices with the underlined talking point, “The website is fixable” — some jittery Democrats are pressing for changes to the system.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and nine other Democrats — four of whom are facing tough re-election fights in conservative states — asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Friday to extend the program’s enrollment period beyond March 31 to ensure Americans aren’t penalizing for failing to sign up for insurance by then.
Separately, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is working with Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson to press for a one-year delay in the individual mandate that Americans buy insurance or pay a $95 penalty.
“All we’re postponing is the crime and a fine,” Manchin said in an interview Thursday. “I’m not giving up. You have to make it better.”
But these proposals could undermine the basis on which insurers made their premium estimates, thereby jeopardizing the overall system.
Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, said insurers were comfortable with the administration’s decision Wednesday night to waive the penalty for any American who signs up for insurance by March 31, since “that is consistent with what health plans assumed with their premium rates for next year.”
“But delaying the individual mandate or extending the enrollment period, going beyond that, would be problematic and could be destabilizing for insurance markets,” Zirkelbach added.
Earlier this month, HHS officials said taxpayers would pay a portion of the penalty if they did not register by Feb. 15, so their plans could kick in by March 1. But as Shaheen and others pressed to extend enrollment given the ongoing glitches, the White House said it would issue guidance exempting consumers from any penalty as long as they signed up for insurance by the end of March.
White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in an interview Friday that she and other officials understand lawmakers’ impatience to devise a policy solution, adding they considered talk of changing the enrollment period “definitely premature.”
“We’re really unhappy. We understand people on the Hill are unhappy, and we want them to be as up to speed as possible how we’re dealing with the problem,” Palmieri said. “We’re in a better position to do that today than we were a few days ago.”
Unlike other moments of controversy, where the White House has held conference calls with progressive groups and dispatched former aides to appear on television shows with talking points, Obama and his deputies have largely managed this issue on their own.
Liberal groups engaged in the effort to promote the law have acted without the White House’s orchestration. Last week, for example, the advocacy group American Bridge 21st Century Project provided opposition research to House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats before Thursday’s hearing on the law. Acting without White House input, the group also issued a rapid response video as soon as the hearing ended, and it plans a similar strategy this week for the two House hearings featuring administration officials, according to an individual familiar with the matter who requested anonymity in order to speak about the strategy.
When the administration has reached out, it has mainly been to constituencies closely involved with the law, such as insurers and health care advocates.
Sebelius, McDonough, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and White House health care adviser Chris Jennings held a call with insurance executives on Oct. 18, and the three White House aides met with several insurance chief executives on Wednesday. Senior HHS and White House officials are also holding regular calls with consumer advocates.
Sebelius has also reached out to individual lawmakers, such as House Energy and Commerce Committee member Diana DeGette, a Democrat, who expressed frustration at Thursday’s hearing that the same contractors who testified on Sept. 10 the system was ready to launch returned this week to explain why online enrollment had experienced a major failure.
“Neither the secretary, nor an other administration official, has explained to me why we had this failure happen,” DeGette said in an interview. But she added she was pleased to learn from Sebelius that the administration had brought on a general contractor to oversee the fixes.
“This isn’t just a technical coding glitch for the website,” Jon Cowan, president of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way said in an email. “The code to get all of Obamacare to work is young, healthy people signing up in large numbers through the exchanges. That’s why the most senior players in the administration are scrambling now to get on top of this.”