Obamacare Has a Few Months Left to Start Working, And It Probably Won't Get an Extension

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 12:32 PM EST

I've been avoiding speculation about the Obamacare website for the past week or two because, really, there hasn't been much concrete information to base anything on. The whole exercise feels like the ultimate in bloggish wankery. There's no real news out there, and spending time either defending Obama or ripping him apart is kind of pointless. Why not just wait and see how things turn out?

Because we're all humans, that's why. We don't need to speculate endlessly about the big Denver-KC showdown on Sunday night either. We could just wait and see who actually wins. But speculation is fun.

That said, concrete information is finally starting to trickle out, and it's grim. Healthcare.gov has signed up only about 40,000 people so far, compared to early estimates of several hundred thousand.1 That's pretty effing bad. Still, we all know the website is a horror show, so this isn't a huge surprise. It just confirms that the website is, indeed, a horror show.

Today, though, we learn that, contrary to President Obama's promise a couple of weeks ago, the horror show isn't likely to get fixed by the end of November:

Software problems with the federal online health insurance marketplace, especially in handling high volumes, are proving so stubborn that the system is unlikely to work fully by the end of the month as the White House has promised, according to an official with knowledge of the project.

The insurance exchange is balking when more than 20,000 to 30,000 people attempt to use it at the same time — about half its intended capacity, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information. And CGI Federal, the main contractor that built the site, has succeeded in repairing only about six of every 10 of the defects it has addressed so far.

....This inside view of the halting nature of HealthCare.gov repairs is emerging as the insurance industry is working behind the scenes on contingency plans, in case the site continues to have problems....The need for what the official called a “divide-and-conquer strategy” for enrollment puts more emphasis on alternative methods for buying health plans. These methods include federal call centers and insurance companies that sell policies directly to customers — paths that are hobbled for now by some of the same technical problems affecting the federal Web site.

And this is all coming on top of screaming from middle-class individual insurance buyers—the kind of people Congress actually cares about—that their rates are going up considerably thanks to Obamacare. Senate Democrats might be able to stand fast against this pressure if the program was actually working smoothly, but the combination of voter anger and technical disaster is wearing them down. At this point, they might very well acquiesce to some kind of Republican "fix" that, we can be sure, will be very precisely calculated to do maximum damage to the goals of Obamacare. That would add disaster on top of disaster.

Sabotage works. But it works a lot better when the bridge is teetering in the first place. I still don't know that I can think of anything very insightful to say about any of this, but it's certainly a low point for Obama's presidency—and the polls are finally catching up to that. I know it's melodramatic to say this, but his presidency really does depend on the next few months. I sure hope everyone in the administration is taking this as seriously as they should.

1This sentence originally said the early estimate was 500,000 signups, but that was for both state and federal exchanges. There was no separate estimate just for the federal exchange. However, since the federal exchange covers more than half the population, it's reasonable to figure that early hopes were for something on the order of 300,000 signups.