How long can Obamacare survive with website woes?

Many applicants are still having problems when they try to log on to the website healthcare.gov. CBS News

Three weeks after the launch of HealthCare.gov, the dysfunctional Obamacare website, the Obama administration is dispatching a team of tech experts to correct the mistakes.

President Obama has promised this team will work around the clock to fix the site, which serves 36 states, but the persistent problems with the federal online marketplace risks undercutting one of the core elements of the law. On top if its technical problems, the law has to reckon with renewed political attacks.

With every passing day, the HealthCare.gov glitches do more damage, politically and practically speaking.

"I think the damage was done," Joseph Antos, a health policy expert from the American Enterprise Institute, told CBSNews.com. "It really does startle me -- I never would have guessed two-and-a-half weeks ago we'd be where we are today."

Antos contends the "tech surge" that the administration has deployed has until around mid-November to create a "tolerable" shopping experience for people before the website's flaws take a true toll on enrollment.

Over the six-month enrollment period, as many as 7 million people were predicted to enroll in private insurance plans through HealthCare.gov and the state-run online marketplaces (referred to as exchanges). Private insurers are depending on that many enrollees -- including a fair share of young, healthy people -- to make the new market feasible. Yet now that HealthCare.gov has stymied so many people from enrolling, the concern is that only sick consumers will bother signing up.

Even Consumer Reports -- which insists it endorses the new marketplaces -- has told consumers it may be worth waiting another month before trying to use the website.

The question is, after waiting that long, will the young and healthy return to the site? Antos contended that by mid-November, those potential enrollees will be too busy thinking about the holidays.

"I would say Nov. 15 is really about it before human nature really does take over and we have such a risk selection problem that the insurance plans could have real financial difficulty in these financial markets."

John Rother, CEO of the nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care, agreed that the website should be fixed by around Thanksgiving to avoid major enrollment problems.

"They can't have 7 million people all sign up all in one week," he said. If the website problems lasted a week or two, he added, "that's not fatal at all, but if it were three months, that would be pretty serious."

A smaller, sicker market could mean higher premiums in the years to come, Rother pointed out.

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