A newly released series of emails reveal top White House and health officials feared the Affordable Care Act website, HealthCare.gov, would not be functional at launch and could become an embarrassment.
The emails, released Wednesday evening by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, were dated Sept. 25, one week before the disastrous Obamacare site launch.
"When Todd Park and Marilyn was [sic] here yesterday one of the things Todd conveyed was this fear the WH has about hc.gov being unavailable," Henry Chao, chief information officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said in an email to a few dozen colleagues.
"Todd does have a good point and I think we should have a more comprehensive answer as to how we will ensure high availability," Chao said after a visit from White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner.
The series of emails also revealed concern over the way HealthCare.gov explained that the website was down and its potentially negative perception in the media.
"Can you think about a better way to convey to the public when the site is not available?" Chao asked. "I am picturing in my mind all the major print and online publications taking screenshots of what is below and just ramping up the hyperbole about hc.gov not functional," he said in an email along with a screenshot of the site down.
President Obama told reporters at a Nov. 14 news conference he wasn't aware of the problems with the website before its launch.
"I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as -- the way it was supposed to," he said. "Had I been informed, I would not be going out saying, 'boy this is going to be great.'"
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a statement to BuzzFeed Wednesday night on the emails, saying they did not expect the magnitude of problems associated with the website's launch.
"As we have said, even before the launch of the website, this is a complex project and we expected that there would be issues. However, we did not anticipate the degree of the problems in the system," CMS said. "It is important to remember that this email is part of a number of ongoing, operationally focused discussions to conduct final checks of processes, procedures and work to ensure Healthcare.gov would be launched on October 1st."
According to the New York Times, as of mid-November, more than 50,000 people had selected an insurance plan on the site, up from just 27,000 in the entire month of October.
The number is still a fraction of what the Obama administration projected and spawned the administration's "tech surge" to fix the site by a Nov. 30 deadline.
However, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius lowered expectations for the deadline Tuesday, telling the Associated Press, it "is not a magic go, no-go date. It is a work of constant improvement. We have some very specific things we know we need to complete by the 30th and that punch list is getting knocked out every week."
Jon Passantino is a deputy news director for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Jon Passantino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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