By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media
Much has been made of Healthcare.gov’s ignominious October 1st launch, and how it has cast a pall over the Obamacare exchanges. But President Obama would like you to know that the “essence of the law is working just fine.” It’s just the website—the main public interface—that’s not working. In his speech today in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama noted that the national website has been visited nearly 20 million times since its launch on October 1st. However, only about 2.5 percent of those visits have resulted in filled-out applications, just the first step toward indicating interest in the health care plans available—perhaps a barometer of the difficulties with the website.
One might have expected a stronger statement from President Obama than a reassurance that things will work out, that the health care “product” is “good,” and that the enrollment period will last six months. After all, even Democrat Nancy Pelosi (CA), a staunch proponent of Obamacare, recently went on ABC’s This Week and condemned the so-called “glitches” as “unacceptable.”
On MSNBC, former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said that it was “excruciatingly embarrassing for the White House and for the Department of Health and Human Services.”
“This [problem with the website] has to be fixed, but what doesn’t have to be fixed is the fact the tens of millions of more people will have access to affordable healthcare, quality healthcare,” maintained Pelosi on ABC. “That no longer having a preexisting medical condition will bar you from getting affordable care.”
“As problems persist on the federally run website, the administration is encouraging more people to sign up for insurance over the phone,” reported the Associated Press on October 19. President Obama reiterated this call in his Rose Garden speech, citing the call-in number.
Some of the mainstream media’s reporting glosses over a key factor of why the website was doomed to failure, focusing instead on the role of CGI Federal, the contractor responsible for the website. To some extent, these “glitches” could have been predicted given the background of CGI Federal’s parent company, Montreal-based CGI Group, which “was officially terminated in September 2012 by an Ontario government health agency after the firm missed three years of deadlines and failed to deliver the province’s flagship online medical registry,” according to the Washington Examiner (emphasis added). CGI Group has not been paid for its unsatisfactory work.
“CGI officials have publicly said that while their company created the system’s overall software framework, the Medicare and Medicaid agency was responsible for integrating and testing all the combined components,” reported The New York Times. So not all the blame should fall on the contractor.
The bigger point is that the computer problems are the canary in the coal mine. Once the computer issues are fixed, we are still left with Obamacare as it’s supposed to work: job killing regulations, rising costs, special interest considerations, contradictions, paradoxes, and killing the 40-hour work week. The product is not good, as Obama professes.
More likely to have caused the website failures is the actual nature of the project: it is a massive undertaking borne of centralized planning, doomed to failure as it seeks to separate health care from the marketplace and place it in government (read highly politicized) hands. “In the private sector, this system would already have been rolled back, probably less than 48 hours after it was rolled out,” argued Megan McArdle for Bloomberg on October 14. “The government has more time, but not that much more, because every day they wait adds to the chaos that will occur if they have to pull the plug in December.”
Just pulling the plug would be politically impossible, given how hard the Democrats and President Obama fought to keep the legislation alive and unchanged during the recent government shutdown. They now own this colossal failure in its entirety. And this isn’t the first time they’ve played politics with it. As the National Journal noted in November 2012, the Obama Administration deliberately delayed writing some health care regulations until after the election to avoid giving his Republican foes additional ammunition. “It is extremely difficult for states,” Krista Drobac, the director of the health division at the National Governors Association told the National Journal. “Informally, we’ve been told that regulations are all on hold until after the election.”
CNS News recently estimated that the 10,535 pages of Obamacare regulations consist of approximately 11.59 million words. Remember that mammoth bill that, according to Pelosi, we had to pass in order to know what was in it? “For each word actually in the Obamacare law that Congress enacted, the Obama administration has written 30 more words in regulations indicating how it will be enforced,” they report.
“Politics made things worse…More than 30 states refused to set up their own exchanges, requiring the federal government to vastly expand its project in unexpected ways,” The New York Times recently noted.
And, according to the Times, “As late as the last week of September , officials were still changing features of the Web site, HealthCare.gov, and debating whether consumers should be required to register and create password-protected accounts before they could shop for health plans.” They opted for the password-protected accounts.
The Daily Beast summarized this move simply, calling it “One of the biggest bottlenecks” coming “right at the beginning of the process.”
“Users are required to enter their personal information, create an account, and log in prior to examining their insurance options—extra steps that were imposed by officials who, the Examiner reports, ‘didn’t want consumers to see the base price of the health insurance plans offered, which are inflated by new regulations, before the system could collect their income data and calculate what they’d pay in premiums after receiving government subsidies,’” writes Andrew Romano for The Daily Beast. “In other words,” he writes, “optics trumped usability.”
Avik Roy explained this more pessimistically: “HHS bureaucrats knew this would make the website run more slowly. But they were more afraid that letting people see the underlying cost of Obamacare’s insurance plans would scare people away.”
In other words, government officials decided that the American people couldn’t be allowed to know how unaffordable the “Affordable Care Act” is, so they require you to calculate your subsidy first instead of after the sticker shock. Optics trumped everything.
“Officials said about 19 million people had visited HealthCare.gov as of Friday night,” reported the Associated Press on October 19. “Administration officials say about 476,000 health insurance applications have been filed through federal and state exchanges, the most detailed measure yet of the problem-plagued rollout of President Barack Obama’s signature legislation,” according to the AP. “However, the officials continue to refuse to say how many people have actually enrolled in the insurance markets.”
“Without enrollment figures, it’s unclear whether the program is on track to reach the 7 million people projected by the Congressional Budget Office to gain coverage during the six-month sign-up period.”
The Washington Post unpacks this half-million number. Sarah Kliff writes that these “numbers tell us that about half-million people are interested in shopping on the marketplaces. But they don’t tell us much about how many people will actually sign up.”
Indeed, the marketplace faces the possibility of a “death spiral” if it fails to attract healthy individuals. “If the exchanges don’t get fixed soon, they could destroy Obamacare—and possibly, the rest of the private insurance market. The reason that the exchanges were so important was that they were needed to attract young, healthy people into the insurance system,” argues McArdle. “If the system cannot reliably process 50 percent of its users on Nov. 1—and I mean from end to end, including sending a valid enrollment file to the insurer—then the administration should ask for a one-year delay of Obamacare’s various regulations, including the individual mandate,” she argues. Such a reprieve seems unlikely.
However, even liberal professors writing for The Huffington Post acknowledge that the problems must be fixed. “While making health care accessible for all remains a worthy goal, and millions of people have already tried to learn more about the offerings, the problems must be quickly remedied,” argues Hofstra professor Joe Peyronnin. “If the president fails to make that happen, Obamacare may damage his ability to achieve any further legislative successes.”
While few conservatives are sorry to see the President’s credibility damaged by this debacle, this should not come at the expense of the American public. But then again, maybe the point is for health care to fail utterly in its new form. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) fueled such speculation in August when he said on “Nevada Week in Review” that he agreed with abandoning insurance altogether and going with a single payer system. “We had a real good run at the public option…don’t think we didn’t have a tremendous number of people who wanted a single-payer system,” he said. Many people remember that this was Barack Obama’s stated preference as well, while campaigning for the presidency back in 2008. That socialist dream is still out there.