Obamacare Signups Are Way Behind Schedule

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 17 2013 10:56 AM

Obamacare Signups Are Way Behind Schedule

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Photo illustration by author.

Back on September 26, my colleague John Dickerson wrote that "On the eve of this long-fought-over moment—the day Obamacare takes affect—President Obama’s best sales tool may come down to a website: healthcare.gov."

That in turn is a powerful reminder of the fact that through the end of September key administration officials seem to have had genuinely no idea of how screwed up the technical infrastructure of the federal exchange websites was going to be. When briefing journalists about their plans to roll the program out, they were very proud of their website and felt that people were going to find it very useful and be pleasantly surprised. Today we learn from the Associated Press that the Department of Health and Human Services was targeting 500,000 signups by the end of October which seems—shall we say—unlikely at this point.

The great political irony of the past several weeks is that the government shutdown Republicans had engineered in an doomed effort to defund Obamacare was obscuring attention from a very real threat to Obamacare—the technology mostly doesn't seem to work.

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This is the kind of thing that if it gets fixed in time, nobody will care about in 10 or 5 or even 1 year. But there really is a problem if it doesn't get fixed in time. Insurance risk pools need scale to really work, and to be viable you need to make sure you sign up plenty of youngish people who don't have acute health care needs. That was always going to be a difficult lift, but it's one the administration was very much prepared for. These technical problems, however, are throwing them off their game plan and if they persist too long will make it hard to make the numbers the program needs to succeed.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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