Spinning wheels on ObamaCare

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The Obama administration says it doesn’t have a messaging problem on ObamaCare.

Senior administration officials argue that their ObamaCare problem is a dysfunctional website, and that as soon as it is fixed any messaging problems will disappear.

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“This isn't a communications problem, it's a problem,” one senior administration official said. “When the website gets up, the communications piece solves itself.”

A second senior administration official told The Hill the White House is handcuffed in its efforts to reverse the negative storylines until the website is fixed. 

“Until the website is fixed, few answers are going to be satisfying,” the second official said. “Once it is, we'll be positioned to make a more persuasive argument about how the American people, particularly the underinsured and the uninsured, benefit from the Affordable Care Act.”

The administration has been dealing with criticism on ObamaCare that goes beyond the website, including the notices sent to hundreds of thousands that their health plans are being discontinued despite Obama’s pledge that all Americans could keep their existing plans under ObamaCare.

At times, the administration has appeared to struggle with keeping up with the news cycle, as fresh healthcare controversies appear to catch leaders flat-footed.

Administration officials have struggled to stay on the same page, with President Obama and his cabinet members at times offering different message.

Sebelius in a blog post on Wednesday titled “Clearing up the Fact” defended Obama as keeping his promise that all Americans would be able to keep their health insurance plans under ObamaCare.

She wrote that those receiving notices that their health plans were ending were being dropped, but rather have additional options for health insurance.

Hours earlier, Obama had acknowledged a majority — but not all — would get to keep their health plans, even as he attacked critics for “grossly misleading” the public.

Joe Antos, a health policy expert at The American Enterprise Institute, scoffed at the notion the administration’s problems with ObamaCare would disappear if the web site is fixed.

“This isn’t just the president’s health plan, this is life, and so anybody who denies there will be more problems and maybe more severe problems is just not living in the real world,” Antos said. 

The administration insists things will get better once the website is fixed. It has set a Nov. 30 deadline for getting that done.

Until consumers can successfully use the website, there won’t be a convincing argument to sell to the public on the merits of law, officials say.

Once the site is fixed, the administration is confident it will be able to win messaging battles over peripheral issues like the cost and availability of ObamaCare plans and the number of people enrolled in ObamaCare.

“We promise people a functioning website here and that's what we owe everyone. When that's operational, the rest becomes background noise,” the first senior administration official said.

In the interim, the second official said the White House is in a mode where it has to focus on sending signals to the public that they’re doing everything in their power to resolve the issues.

“The idea is to muscle through it until the website is up,” the first senior administration official said. 

Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University who specializes in political communications, said the administration’s problems on healthcare go beyond messaging.

“The rollout has been a complete mess and Obama and Carney have not been able to explain it away,” Berkovitz said. “Yes, they have a problem and no they haven't been able to come close to solving it with communications. The problem is big and rhetoric is not the solution to it.”

ObamaCare’s rollout is now a growing worry for congressional Democrats, some of whom have called for delays to the enrollment period or mandate to buy insurance to account for the troubled enrollment website.

With the House out next week and a month to go before the administration’s self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline set for fixing the website, the White House and Democrats have some time to get their breath and get on to the same page.

But that won’t be easy, especially since the troubled website is putting ObamaCare behind the eight-ball on its enrollment count.

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee revealed Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services meeting notes from the opening days of the ObamaCare exchanges that suggested only people enrolled in ObamaCare on the day the website launched, with just 248 logged through 48 hours.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday that the administration would enroll “the numbers we need” for ObamaCare to work.

Congressional Budget Office estimates have assumed 7 million consumers will sign up for coverage on the exchanges — or an average of 39,000 per day for the six months that people can purchase coverage.