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Another View: Obamacare's looming deadline

Published: Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON – Today, President Barack Obama’s new Web startup – healthcare.gov – is supposed to work better. How much better is a little hard to pin down.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said, “We are definitely on track to have a significantly different user experience by the end of this month.” Considering the initial experience was a near total collapse, Sebelius is doing an excellent job at keeping expectations in the bargain basement.

It is practically impossible for the site to fail at offering a “different user experience,” so her guarantee is perhaps the weakest promise one could make. The official promise is much more brave.

According to a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the entire federal health care system, from beginning to end, will work as originally intended for the vast majority of users.

That doesn’t just mean that the site will function – from sign-up to picking a new plan – but that the handoff of information to insurance companies will run as intended. That back-end step has been the tricky one, even as improvements have been made to the beleaguered site.

Insurance company sources tell the National Journal that there is still about a 5 percent error rate in the information the site submits to insurance companies on behalf of those picking a new insurance plan. If the site is fixed but this problem is not, the problem could get worse.

People would sign on, fill out the forms and insurance companies would be flooded with bad data. That would delay insurance companies sending out bills, which is the necessary step required for a person to actually have insurance by Jan. 1.

For those in the individual market who have coverage now, if they don’t sign up by that deadline, they will be exposed.

The administration says the problem – the so-called 834 forms – is at the top of the “punch list,” but they have been saying that for months and aren’t saying how much progress has been made. If this glitch remains, people who believed they were on the verge of getting new coverage will wonder what’s up.

They’ll call their member of Congress, and those members will re-up their calls for delays and changes in the law. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has said he is open to a delay of the individual mandate if the problems with the system aren’t fixed by the end of November.

A lingering 834 problem would appear to qualify as not being fixed.

While HHS troubleshooters may have a policy punch list, Franken and other Democrats in Congress have a “political punch list” of their own. Vulnerable Democrats can’t improve the implementation of the law, but they can limit their political liability by acting quickly when problems arise and preparing themselves for the predictable problems that are coming next year.

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