No one doubts now that the White House faces a serious crisis as a result of the botched rollout of the web portal for the Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare. Just look at the usually friendly Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week, which shows that President Obama's poll numbers have tanked, not just on job approval but on a wide swath of specific measures, from his positions on the economy to the budget.
Clearly, the public has lost confidence in Obama, and the rollout of Healthcare.gov has been the biggest flashpoint for voters. In its latest bid to repair the damage, the White House is looking to borrow some much-needed tech cred from an industry giant: Microsoft. This week, the administration announced that retiring Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene would take over the Healthcare.gov project.
DelBene at least has direct industry experience in information services and commercial web systems, unlike his predecessor Jeffrey Zients, a White House economics official whose private-sector experience comes in executive consultancy and venture capitalism. DelBene got public endorsements from his now-former superiors at Microsoft, founder Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer. "Clearly, Kurt's technical and business skills will be invaluable in his new endeavor," Ballmer said. Gates concurred by praising his "deep expertise as a manager and engineer" who uses "technology to solve difficult problems at scale."
However competent DelBene might be, he still faces enormous challenges, both substantive and political. His biggest challenge might be perceptual, though. First, even with his track record at Microsoft, the question of political connections exists. DelBene's wife, Suzan, won a seat in Congress last November, and was a featured candidate in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue" program, targeting competitive districts represented by Republicans. Is DelBene the best quarterback, or merely the best man already on the Democrats' team?
The public is in no mood to cut the White House slack on trust issues. Politifact, which had earlier defended (six times!) the promise Obama made for years that people could keep their insurance plans if they liked them, reversed course this week and named it the Lie of the Year. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler also ranked it among the Pinocchios of the Year, and ranked three of Obama's claims among the top five whoppers of 2013. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius didn't help matters in late October when she told Congress that the web portal had "never crashed," but that it was instead functional at "very low reliability." Just 20 minutes later, Sebelius refused to provide enrollment numbers because, as she testified, "The system isn't functioning so we are not getting reliable data."
Then there is the state of Healthcare.gov itself. Zients didn't deliver much on that score since taking the helm in October. Thanks to acquiring more server resources, more users could access the system simultaneously after December 1, although 30 percent less than the 50,000-concurrent-user standard HHS set. The portal continued to have problems authenticating users, and the back-end issues of communication with insurers continued to plague as many as 10 percent of all sign-ups. The subsidy payment systems aren't even online yet, which forced the White House last week to suggest paying whatever insurers tell them are owed in premium subsidies until the back-end systems are finally completed.
Furthermore, security experts told Congress before the Zients fixes that they would recommend shutting down the site for months to fix the gaps at Healthcare.gov, and afterward were even more skeptical of site security. House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced yesterday that documents obtained by his committee show that HHS knew that 11 known security issues "will significantly impact the confidentiality, integrity, and/or availability of the system or data" — and yet they remain unaddressed and unacknowledged to Congress or the public.
In a better measure of the administration's confidence in their supposedly "improved" system, the White House quietly canceled a planned major ad campaign to encourage people to enter into the system. The White House still tried bragging that the changes had made the Healthcare.gov team operate "with private sector velocity and effectiveness," which led Chuck Todd to wonder why government was needed in the first place if that was the goal.
DelBene should surely have a better grasp of private sector velocity and effectiveness. But merely recruiting someone who worked in the private sector — or even the tech industry — is not a panacea for ObamaCare's ills. Even though Microsoft made itself into one of the biggest American success stories of the computer age, the company does not enjoy a sterling reputation with consumers when it comes to operating systems or web applications. Windows 8, the latest OS from Microsoft, got widely panned on its initial rollout, necessitating an accelerated upgrade to fix problems that should have been caught before release — which sounds uncomfortably familiar in this context. (Full disclosure: I got the "blue screen of death" on a week-old Windows 8 ultrabook and lost all my data just three weeks ago.) Competitors such as Google Chrome and Firefox have long eclipsed its browser, Internet Explorer.
Perhaps DelBene will work miracles for Obama and HHS on the Healthcare.gov portal. At least the White House finally reached out in a significant way to the part of the private sector that deals with web applications, nearly four years after winning on ObamaCare in Congress. Whether that translates into a "significantly different user experience" with the site or not, the fact that it took this long to do so will remain a confirmation of the entrenched incompetence at HHS and the White House for a very long time in the minds of voters.