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Wendell Potter Headshot

Now That the Obamacare Website Is Largely Fixed, It Will Be Spin From Here On In

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Now that November is history, will the Obamacare website work flawlessly from now on? Or, as the president has said, will it at least work for the "vast majority" of people who need to buy insurance on their own?

We will know in a few days if, as administration officials pledged last week, most of the problems that plagued the website were actually resolved. They're now saying that at least 90 percent of folks seeking to enroll in a health plan online can now do so.

The tech team that has been working around the clock to fix HealthCare.gov said it can now handle 50,000 users at a time -- and up to 800,000 a day -- without crashing. And if folks have trouble with the site during particularly busy times, they can leave an email address to be notified later when fewer users are trying to enroll.

It will be a largely seamless experience for most, and hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of people who were previously uninsured or underinsured will have quality, affordable coverage beginning January 1, many for the first time.

But that doesn't mean those who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to scare people about the reform law -- including health insurers -- will throw in the towel. On the contrary, we can expect them to double down, at least through 2014.

That's because this is about politics. It is not about making sure that all Americans have access to solid medical care when they need it. It is about which political party will control the House and the Senate after the midterm elections eleven months and two days from now.

Both political parties will be seeking to control the debate -- and the media coverage -- about Obamacare. The way things seem to be shaping up, the Republicans may have the advantage.

That's because unlike Democrats, GOP lawmakers have shown that they can stay on message about the law, that they can take the talking points of the week they're handed and repeat them over and over again. And it's because many Washington reporters have demonstrated a willingness to be little more than dictation takers, reliably reporting what politicians say without taking the time to determine the veracity of those claims.

From the very beginning of the health care reform debate -- before the first word of legislation was written -- Republican political consultant Frank Luntz advised GOP lawmakers to call whatever plan the Democrats came up with a "government takeover of health care." It was repeated so often -- and dutifully reported by the media -- that Politifact chose it as the "Lie of the Year" in 2010.

Luntz didn't coin the term. Variations of it have been used for decades to defeat reform efforts. When I was still working as an insurance industry PR guy, my colleagues and I settled on "government takeover of health care" in 2007, in press releases from a front group we had created, as the central message of a campaign to persuade the public that filmmaker Michael Moore was advocating such a takeover in his movie SiCKO.

Two and a half years later, on November 7, 2009, the day the House of Representatives narrowly approved what became the Affordable Care Act, just about every GOP member of Congress rose to condemn the legislation as a "government takeover of health care."

As the New York Times reported a few days back, House Republicans are returning to their playbook, distributing memos with "talking points and marching orders" about Obamacare.

According to the Times story: "Republican strategists say that over the next several months, they intend to keep Democrats on their heels through a multi-layered, sequenced assault."

Having participated in numerous clandestine meetings with Republican strategists in years past -- at PR agencies in Washington and in airport hotel conference rooms in cities like Chicago and Dallas -- I can almost assure you that some of my former colleagues are playing behind-the-scenes roles in crafting the current batch of talking points. Like, "Because of Obamacare, I lost my insurance."

While most insurers like the requirement that Americans have to buy coverage from them, they don't like the profit-limiting consumer protections in the law. They know they will have a better chance of weakening or getting rid of them if the GOP can take control of both the House and Senate next November.

Democratic consultants have developed a few talking points of their own, of course, but I have not observed the same level of message discipline among Democrats as I have seen among Republicans. Unless they figure out how to adapt the GOP playbook to their own advantage, they will continue to be on the defensive about Obamacare for months to come.