Email messages released today by Republican congressional investigators reveal that at least five days before the launch of HealthCare.gov, the White House apparently "feared" negative publicity from the site's now-famous 'System Is Down' warning.
In a Sept. 25 email to staff developing the website, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project manager Henry Chao cited "this fear the WH has about hc.gov being unavailable" and urged the team to "think about a better way to convey to the public when the site is not available."
"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 [being] functional," Chao wrote.
Republicans say it proves the White House knew the site was likely to fail, even as President Obama told Americans signing up for health insurance would be as simple as buying a plane ticket. Top administration officials have repeatedly said that they were caught entirely off guard by the breadth and depth of the site's technical problems on Oct. 1.
While advance warning might have never reached the Oval Office, Chao seems to indicate that at least some White House staff believed the problems were sufficiently concerning to necessitate a push for ways to minimize bad press.
In response to the emails, which were released by the House Oversight Committee, CMS said that "even before the launch of the website … we expected that there would be issues" but that officials "did not anticipate the degree of the problems in the system."
"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," a CMS official said in a statement.
At the very least, the emails show Chao and other officials were quite prescient: The webpage has become exactly what they feared, a symbol of the troubled rollout.
When Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius first testified on Capitol Hill this month, the 'System Is Down' warning appeared in split-screen with her testimony on many cable channels and in the hearing room.
During her visit to a health care Navigators site in Florida Tuesday, it again came back to haunt her.
With a scrum of cameras and reporters surrounding her, Sebelius approached a navigator and looked at her computer Web browser, which was directed to HealthCare.gov.
"The screen says I'm sorry but the system is temporarily down," one reporter pointed out, according to video of the encounter captured by Miami TV station WFOR.
"Uh oh," replied Sebelius.
"That happens every day," said the Navigator, "it must mean a lot of people are on there trying to get coverage."