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Bipartisan Anger, Competing Interests Over HealthCare.gov


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. With the drama of the 17-day government shutdown over, the spotlight returned this week to the troubled rollout of the Obamacare insurance exchanges. Both Republicans and Democrats expressed anger over the crippled HealthCare.gov website during hearings that were conducted this week, but of course there are competing agendas, as there always are.

To help us sort through these political implications is our own Ron Elving, senior Washington editor. Ron, thanks very much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: How big a deal might these problems be?

ELVING: It's a big deal because, you know, it casts doubt on the basic practical viability of what has been the President's signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. And just at the moment when it had survived all of these other big political tests, you know, passage and enactment and the Supreme Court test, and then the big shutdown showdown, just when we get through all of those traps, well, how ironic that a faulty website could seemingly be the undoing of Obamacare at this point.

SIMON: Politically speaking, is this the kind of thing that can be fixed and move on, or could there be something more permanent here?

ELVING: Well, we just had a briefing from the former director of the Office of Management and Budget who is a very well-respected crisis manager, Jeff Zients, and the President has brought him in and put him in charge of trying to straighten all of this out. And he says, look, we've had 700,000 people create accounts on these websites in the first couple, three weeks, troubled as they have been. Problem is, of course, only a minor fraction of those people have actually managed to get through to enrolling for health insurance, private health insurance.

About half the people who've gotten through got through on state exchanges, as opposed to the federal ones that most of the states essentially defaulted to. So the program is unquestionably troubled. But if it is possible to bring it around, and Jeff Zients says by the end of November - give us four or five weeks - the vast majority of people, he says, will have a smooth experience when they go to HealthCare.gov.

If that's true then the Obama Administration will have a reason for thanksgiving.

SIMON: With the advantage of a few days hindsight, did Republican critics of the program miss an opportunity during the shutdown to be able to talk about this?

ELVING: Surely if there had been no shutdown crisis, the first days in October when this site was struggling would have been the biggest story, the only story in Washington. Instead, they were overshadowed by this other crisis. So now that we're through the woods on the one hand, we suddenly have this focus on the health care site, then that's an opportunity for the Republicans really to make a comeback, although they have to be kicking themselves that they weren't able to do this right from the beginning.

And right now they're trying to make up lost ground on that and we'll have to see in the weeks ahead which way this goes. Is there more resentment over the shutdown crisis? Is there more of a lingering bruise on their brand from that? Or are people still focused week after week on the inadequacies of this particular website?

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.