The juxtaposition of Tuesday’s two top stories was extraordinary.
The top story all day was that Republicans had shut down the federal government because President Obama wouldn’t defund or delay the Affordable Care Act. The other major story was that the government’s servers were crashing because so many people were trying to see if they could get insurance through Obamacare.
So on the one hand, Washington was shut down because Republicans don’t want Obamacare. On the other hand, Obamacare was nearly shut down because so many Americans wanted Obamacare.
The coming days will be a major test of the IT infrastructure supporting the Affordable Care Act. The online marketplaces were flooded with eager applicants on Tuesday — a rush that far exceeded the expectations of marketplace directors. Reuters estimates that they got more than 10 million visits. But many of those applicants faced slow pages and error messages. Some waited hours to sign up for Obamacare. Others resolved to come back later.
The Obama administration’s line is that the glitches were nothing more than a new product being hit with unexpected levels of demand. “We found out that there have been times this morning where the site has been running more slowly than it normally will,” President Obama said. “The reason is because more than one million people visited healthcare.gov before 7:00 in the morning.”
If that’s really the reason and the technical problems were caused by nothing more serious than overwhelming traffic then the law will be fine. But if the error messages and slow pages are persistent problems in the coming weeks, that’ll be a more serious problem. People will come back once or twice. But they won’t struggle endlessly with a buggy web site. And if the Obama administration hasn’t managed to set up a usable online marketplace given all the time they’ve had to prepare, then that’s a tremendous failure on their part.
Sadly, the American people are still struggling with a buggy Congress — and it’s not clear any fix is in the offing. It was strange and slightly perverse to watch Obamacare open and be flooded with people desperate to sign up for health insurance even as the government closed because Republicans wanted the law ripped out, or at least delayed. In some quarters, Republicans mocked Obamacare’s technical problems, but the jokes were wan: Overwhelming demand for the law is not a boon to the GOP’s position.
This is, of course, precisely what Republicans were scared of: That a law they loathe would end up being enthusiastically embraced by millions of Americans — and thus proving permanent. It’s Obamacare’s possible success, not its promised failures, that unnerve the GOP.