Obama Almost Scrapped HealthCare.gov Two Weeks After Launch

Image: Obama Almost Scrapped HealthCare.gov Two Weeks After Launch

Friday, 28 Feb 2014 10:29 AM

By Melanie Batley

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President Barack Obama considered scrapping the entire Obamacare website just 16 days after its botched rollout on Oct. 1, a top aide says.

"Can it be patched and improved to work, or does it need to be scrapped to start over?" the president asked on Oct. 17, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough tells Time magazine.

"He wanted to know if this thing is salvageable," McDonough said.

The conversation happened on the day the federal government returned to work after the 16-day government shutdown.

McDonough and the president had been meeting almost daily since the website's Oct. 1 launch, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; and White House health reform policy director Jeanne Lambrew to discuss how to move forward.

Despite Obama's doubts about the website, days later he was touting the benefits of the marketplace, though his rhetoric shifted away from a focus on HealthCare.gov.

"We're also redoubling our efforts to make sure you can still buy the same quality, affordable insurance plans available on the marketplace the old-fashioned way — offline, either over the phone or in person," he said at an event in the Rose Garden at the time.

"And by the way, there are a lot of people who want to take advantage of this who are more comfortable working on the phone anyway or in person," Obama said.

Behind the scenes, White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park was urgently recruiting tech experts who would work 18-hour days to determine whether the website was salvageable.

"While the president papered over the technical failures of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, White House chief technology officer Todd Park was building a dream team to right the ship," Time notes.

But at the time, one of the engineers recruited to the project was doubtful. "Maybe we had to tell the world we'll be back to you in six or nine months with a new site," he pondered, according to Time.

The turning point, however, came after Jeff Zients, former management consultant and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, was brought in to manage the project.

On Oct. 23, 10 days after he arrived, and after he spoke to scores of experts brought on to tackle the project, Zients reassured the president that the fixes to HealthCare.gov could be achieved by the end of November, Time reports.

After the president "pressure-tested the decision" that the site could be fixed by asking a number of questions about why they thought they could make the six-week deadline, the president signed off to move forward with HealthCare.gov.

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