The long-awaited debut of ObamaCare's online insurance exchange marketplace has been, without a doubt, a disaster. Beset by glitches and an unexpectedly high user load, HealthCare.gov has sputtered and crashed since going live Oct. 1, leading even the staunchest proponents of ObamaCare to wonder if the debacle might ultimately undermine the entire law.
But maybe it's time to cut President Obama and his team a little slack.
The White House certainly bungled the rollout, but the widespread scorn among the pundit class obfuscates the fact that the exchange website, though massively complex, could be operational in short order. And the criticisms of the Obama administration gloss over Republicans' repeated attempts to undermine the law through both the legislature and the courts, efforts that have made implementation that much harder.
The administration has been hamstrung time and again by GOP roadblocks since the law went into effect. Congressional Republicans blocked funding needed to get the law off the ground; GOP state legislatures balked at establishing their own health-care exchanges, placing a larger burden on the federal government; and Republicans nationwide fought the law all the way to the Supreme Court, in effect postponing when the administration could begin work.
Seeking to rebuild their tainted image following the government shutdown, Republicans have turned their full attention to ObamaCare's clumsy debut, demanding answers as to what went wrong and calling for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to step down. Having first worked fervently against the law though, the GOP has taken the hypocritical position of being a "party that does everything possible to sabotage a law and then professes fury when the law's launch is rocky," wrote The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas.
"The GOP's complaints that their plan to undermine the law worked too well and someone has to pay border on the comic," they added. "If Republicans believe Sebelius is truly to blame for the law's poor launch, they should be pinning a medal on her."
On the technical side, the exchange website getting off to a bumpy start was not entirely unpredictable. The site is massively complex, pulling in troves of information from multiple federal agencies. The online marketplace site contains about 500 million lines of code, according to The New York Times, making it about five times the size of a large bank's computer system.
The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn actually fretted back in May about the exact problems facing the exchange website now, noting that ObamaCare called for a "vast electronic infrastructure to be created from scratch, so that every state has its own website." The task, he wrote, was so monumental that it would be "no small accomplishment if they work at all."
Consider what the new system has to do. First, it determines whether you're eligible for Medicaid or for subsidized private insurance. If it's the latter, it will figure out what subsidies, if any, you qualify for. To do that, it must verify your identity, residency, and income, which means communicating with the Social Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security, and Internal Revenue Service. You'll be presented with insurance choices, based on a separate set of communications with the carriers. Finally, the system will calculate your premium, taking the subsidies into account.
Ensuring all the different entities communicate seamlessly is a headache-inducing task — especially when some of the systems are old and idiosyncratic. [The New Republic]
In other words, the ubiquitous comparisons between HealthCare.gov and an imaginary, beautifully efficient online exchange created by a private company are mostly bogus. Few, if any, tech companies have ever had to deal with this scale of complexity. Furthermore, even the savviest tech companies know that every rollout is something of an experiment, requiring troubleshooting along the way.
Finally, the administration can quell the backlash by, quite simply, making the site work as it's supposed to — at which point all this criticism becomes fairly meaningless.
Much of the furor has focused on how the lack of functionality could make it difficult for the uninsured to obtain coverage by the March 31, 2014, cutoff date when the individual mandate's penalty goes into effect. Republicans, and even some swing-state Democrats, have called for punting the mandate to ensure no one is penalized because of a faulty website.
However, the administration has already said it will do just that, moving the penalty back by up to six weeks. If the biggest concern is really that the uninsured will have too small a window to obtain coverage, the six-week delay — or a longer one, if the website's problems persist — should ameliorate that concern.
Yes, the White House bears the brunt of the blame. And yes, if HealthCare.gov remains grounded for months, criticisms of the health-care law will become far more potent. For now, though, the administration has time to work out the kinks and overcome the obstacles placed in its path by opponents.