The past two months have not been kind to the credibility of Barack Obama and his administration.
Despite reaping the political benefits of an ill-advised government shutdown driven by Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare, the actual rollout of the program has been an utter disaster. Even though Health and Human Services had 42 months in which to create a rather standard web portal connecting consumers and insurers — which Medicare Advantage has done for years — HHS delivered an epic failure on Oct. 1 and has barely caught up since.
Millions of cancelations made a mockery of Obama's promise that people could keep their health insurance, and documents uncovered by the media over the past several weeks show that administration officials knew it to be false even while they repeated the claims. Those few fortunate enough to make it through the Healthcare.gov labyrinth to see pricing information are suffering from sticker shock, and the subsidy payment system designed to offset the costs doesn't even exist yet.
But instead of slowing down, the Obama administration is trying to squeeze even more people into this dysfunctional system.
This week, President Obama and his White House advisers surveyed the damage done by ObamaCare, and decided that the best solution is... a series of sales pitches. In an attempt to drown out the embarrassing news stories about the systemic failures at HHS, Obama gave an address from the White House on Tuesday and started planning media appearances to offer more positive coverage of the law's eventual benefits — even if people can't confirm now whether they actually have enrolled through Healthcare.gov or not.
That's the case for 61-year-old Bob Shlora in Alpharetta, Ga. Just as the president launched his new sales effort, ABC News reported that Shlora spent weeks attempting to enroll in health insurance through the federal web portal. Shlora even got an ID number from Humana through the exchange, but when he went to check his coverage two days later, Humana couldn't find any record of it or Shlora in the system.
"I've lost hope," Shlora told ABC, and he won't be the only one. Officials in the Obama administration have begun acknowledging that 126,000 Americans who thought they had health insurance coverage starting on Jan. 1, 2014, will have to contact their insurer to find out.
What happened? For the past two months, the Healthcare.gov back end has transmitted bad data to insurers, which have had to follow up on new enrollments and manually enter the data into their systems. Insurers need to receive text files called 834s in order to import large numbers of enrollees into their systems. The 834 standard has been around for decades, and is used across the industry. Despite this, the contractor that built Healthcare.gov — CGI Federal — mystifyingly failed to program the system to produce correct data files for those transfers.
The Washington Post reported this week that a third of all enrollments may have gotten lost in the transfers as a result. The New York Times explained the same day that all of the website traffic in the world won't matter when these people need to see providers. "If they go to a doctor or a hospital and we have no record of them," an insurance executive warned, "that will be very upsetting to consumers."
Insurers warn that the back end of Healthcare.gov is not just faulty, but that a big piece of it is still missing — the subsidy-payment system that bridges the cost for lower-income Americans to cover the higher premiums resulting from the imposition of ObamaCare mandates. CGI Federal is also responsible for that part of the system, and no one can say when it will go live — and whether it will actually function when it does.
Nevertheless, Obama is launching a new campaign to get people to buy into the ObamaCare system before the Dec. 23 cutoff for coverage beginning Jan. 1, especially the younger and healthier Americans whose comprehensive-coverage premiums will subsidize lower premiums for older and sicker consumers. No doubt the White House will encourage consumers to visit the website, use the newly implemented "queuing" software that allows them to wait in line for lengthy periods of time while the site is unavailable, and then start shopping for those higher-priced plans in which the system may or may not enroll them.
But those consumers will be taking a risk with their personal identity information, as former Marine Corps cyber-warfare and internet security expert David Kennedy warned. The new round of "fixes" implemented over the holiday weekend made an already dangerous website even worse, Kennedy, now the CEO of TrustedSec, told the Washington Free Beacon. The fixes made over 400 changes to the code, none of which were reportedly tested for the security issues identified in the previous releases. "I'm a little bit more skeptical now," Kennedy said, "and I would still definitely advise individuals to not use the website."
None of these issues are near resolution, and yet Obama plans to spend the next three weeks attempting to sell this lemon. But now, it's not just the product that's at stake, but the salesman as well. Thanks to Obama's mantra of "If you like your plan, you can keep your plan," offered as late as just before the Oct. 1 rollout, the president has lost his credibility on this issue — and likely on all others as well.
His average approval rating on Real Clear Politics has dropped below 40 percent for the first time in his presidency. But worse yet are the ratings on personal qualities like honesty, integrity, and leadership. CNN's latest poll, taken just before Thanksgiving, shows 53 percent believing that Obama isn't honest or trustworthy. A CBS News poll put trust in Obama's word at 49 percent, eleven points lower than a year earlier, while a Washington Post/ABC News survey gave him a 47/50 result on whether he was "honest and trustworthy" — and 33/63 when those attributes were applied to the ObamaCare implementation.
The polls show that the White House has reached the limit of fancy speeches and spin. At this point, few will buy a used web portal from a discredited salesman. Obama and his team should be focused on delivery rather than trying to offer sunny promises to consumers who already feel suckered by his past pitches, and who have seen little reason to trust in the ability of this administration to meet even the basic competence needed to back them up.