Administration officials are repeating earlier promises of an on-time launch. “The marketplaces will be ready,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters said Thursday in a typical statement. “We are on schedule with the testing that began in October 2012. Any discussion to the contrary is pure speculation.” And while administration officials didn’t hint at problems with the employer system until the surprise delay, the marketplaces are different. The core goal of the Affordable Care Act is to bring health insurance to those who don’t have it, and the law’s long-term success will be judged on how many new people get covered. That’s a reality with both practical and political consequences, and the people setting it up know that. “There will be a Web portal, and there will be call centers, and they will enroll people in products and put them on tax credits,” says Cindy Gillespie, senior managing director at McKenna Long & Aldridge. “That’s going to happen. How smoothly the eligibility process works? Who knows. But it will be made to work.”

Building the exchanges has proven a heavy lift. To make them work, the federal government needs not only a consumer-facing website and call centers stocked with customer-service representatives in 34 states but also a brand-new, complex IT structure to make the system work across the country. The law says that when an applicant enters her information online, various federal agencies must validate her income, citizenship status, residency, and eligibility for Medicaid. The portal must also connect to the Veterans Administration, the Defense Department, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Peace Corps. Plus, it needs to communicate with every health plan selling insurance in each state…

Still, while the public deadline is Oct. 1, HHS and its contractors will realistically have a little extra time to fix IT problems. The insurance plans won’t go live until January, leaving a cushion if parts of the system have to default to paper, or if delays arise in processing applications. Cheryl Smith, a senior practitioner at Deloitte, worked on the Utah small-business health exchange, which launched in 2009. Before the open-enrollment deadline, “I had holes in my stomach,” she says. “We got to that day and I realized, this is not really the launch.” As long as the website goes live in October and people have new insurance plans in January, the administration will have kept its key promises.