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How Is White House Handling HealthCare.gov Debacle?


This week, the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, testified before Congress about the botched rollout of the HealthCare.gov website. It was the latest attempt at damage control by the Obama administration since the site went live a month ago.


SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: The website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability - and has continued to function.

RATH: But even as Sebelius was defending the site, a screen above her head showed the website unavailable, frozen on an error message. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now to talk about the politics of all this. Hi, Mara.


RATH: So in addition to defending the HealthCare.gov site, Kathleen Sebelius apologized for many problems. The White House says that they're standing by her, but some Republicans are calling for her resignation. How much of a hit has this been this week, politically, for the administration?

LIASSON: Well, it's been a big hit. They're standing by her for many reasons, but one of them is that they could never get anyone else confirmed by the Senate as the secretary of Health and Human Services. And there are many people in the White House who are angry at her for the botched rollout. But the hit, politically, is big. For the president, the problem is that this isn't just his signature legislative achievement. It also goes to the heart of the promise of the Obama presidency.

Remember, he said he didn't want bigger government or smaller government. He wanted smarter government. And he was going to prove that government could work for middle-class people, and the health care law was the prime example. And there are even some conservatives who say that this botched rollout is undermining liberalism itself. So for now, a very big hit.

RATH: Sebelius is promising that by the end of November, the nightmare's going to be over. The site will be fixed by then. Is that even possible?

LIASSON: It better be possible because the czar of the fix - Jeffrey Zients, the person that the White House has appointed to be in charge of all this - has said the end of November is going to be when the majority of consumers will be able to use this without problems. And members of Congress who I've talked to, who have been briefed by the administration, say that the White House is very confident that it will be fixed. And it really has to be. And the White House has been much more transparent now about the technical problems - exactly what's happening, and giving a lot more technical information.

RATH: So the president has been on the record for years now, saying that no one is going to have to give up their insurance plan if they like it. But, of course, that claim has taken a hit as insurance companies have been sending out hundreds of thousands of cancellation notices. What's up with that?

LIASSON: Well, what the president said was just not accurate. He said that if you like your health plan, you will be able to keep it - period. He was unequivocal about that, and categorical. In fact, for about 5 percent of the insured, people who do not get their insurance through their employer or through Medicare or Medicaid and are on the individual private market, a lot of them are getting cancellation notices because their coverage does not meet the new standards of the Affordable Care Act.

In many cases, the people who are getting these cancellation notices can go on the exchanges - when the website is ever fixed - and get something that might be better, and cheaper. But the president's taking a tremendous amount of heat for a promise that he couldn't fulfill. And it's really come back to haunt him.

RATH: And as you mentioned, the president was supposed to be the technology president - not smaller government, but smarter government. But this rollout has been, technologically, a disaster. Where does he go from here?

LIASSON: Well, he's got to fix the website; that's the first thing. But in a year from now, when we have the 2014 elections - and this will be the first time that there will be electoral verdict on the actual health care law. It's always been theoretical; you know, what people think about the law without the law being in effect. This time, it's on the ground. People are going to be able to touch it and feel it and experience it. He has to hope that the kinks are ironed out and that net-net, people think this law is a good thing for them.

RATH: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.