For the past three weeks, systemic flaws in an enterprise that had 42 months between approval and launch have dominated the coverage of the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Originally dismissed as mere "glitches," it's now clear that these were humiliating failures. After all, pretty much everyone who has visited HealthCare.gov has been unable to enroll. And now that the shutdown isn't sucking up all the oxygen in D.C., more and more people are focusing on how poorly the system was designed and how the enrollment process failures might mask even worse problems with the system.
For instance, The New York Times informed its readers on Monday that, far beyond the idea of "glitches," the $400 million website might need 5 million lines of code rewritten. Even worse, insurers have found that the data passed to them for the few people to successfully enroll in a plan is rife with errors. "The system provides them with incorrect information about some enrollees, repeatedly enrolls and cancels the enrollments of others, and simply loses the enrollments of still others," the Times reported.
This casts doubt not just on whether the number of completed enrollments is accurate, but also whether those consumers actually have coverage … and whether they know that they might not. It also threatens to derail the system longer than the first significant deadline for compliance with the individual mandate — December 15, when insurers will stop processing applications for January 1 coverage. On Sunday, OMB Director Sylvia Burwell appeared defended the ObamaCare rollout but refused to commit to whether the exchanges would be fixed by December 15. Burwell would only say that "the administration is working deeply on the problems that exist."
CBS reported on the same problem last week, but went further. The enrollment woes on the federal exchange website kept the numbers of erroneous applications low enough that the customer-service representatives could follow up with enrollees to fix the data and individually confirm the coverage. "But as enrollment increases — up to 7 million consumers are expected to sign up in the next five and a half months — that may not be possible," Jan Crawford reported.
With Democrats starting to panic over the spectacle, President Obama finally took action — of sorts. Obama gave a Rose Garden speech that essentially re-enacted the final Chip Diller scene from Animal House, telling the nation, "All is well!" In a strange address marked by a rambling attack on Republican critics and claims that plenty of people had successfully navigated the system, Obama read off a short series of anecdotes while flanked by 13 people who had successfully accessed ObamaCare — or so the White House claimed. Byron York discovered that the White House seemed as adept at defining success as it has been at launching websites, with only three of the 13 actually enrolled through ObamaCare for insurance coverage. One of them, Janice Baker, is the only person confirmed to have succeeded in buying coverage through Delaware's state-run exchange.
Obama insisted, "Nobody's madder than me about the fact that the website isn't working as well as it should." Getting angry would be a good start. However, the only anger Obama flashed at all in his speech was aimed at critics pointing out the failures, and not the people who were responsible for the system's creation. This website cost the American people more than $400 million, according to the Times, and yet not once in Obama's speech did he say he would impose accountability for the failure. In fact, the word "accountable" never appears in his speech, despite the nine-figure price tag and the 42 months HHS had to get this right.
The president did promise a "tech surge" to find and eliminate the problems in the website, including the transmission of bad data to insurers. He reassured Americans that "America's top private-sector tech companies" had offered their help to resolve the problem, noting that they "have seen things like this happen before." That's debatable, especially on the scale and scope of this failure, but it's at least true that private-sector firms occasionally have to deal with failing projects. However, they usually solve the problem by imposing substantial penalties for those responsible for the failure, such as demotions and terminations, and replace them with more competent personnel to rescue the projects. They also usually don't start off by blaming the critics for the problem and then trying to get consumers to believe that everything is hunky-dory.
The scope of this failure demands changes at HHS — at least if Obama wants Americans to have trust in this system. Kathleen Sebelius's top priority since March 2010 was preparing for the rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges, and yet they have all but collapsed, to the point that two successive weekends of patches can't fix the issues. (The last patch was to add a button explaining how to use the call center rather than the website, but the call center can't properly handle the requests, either.) HHS's subsidiary agency Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and its administrator, Marilyn Tavenner, were responsible for developing and launching HealthCare.gov, but Obama didn't mention either agency or its top executives in his speech. If Obama is "madder" than anyone, who is he mad at?
Here's a better question. Why should Americans believe that the broken system will be fixed within weeks by the same people who had control of this project for the last three-plus years and had $400 million at their disposal? Asking people to trust in the failed management team that delivered the current fiasco would be like asking them to believe that they can keep their plan if they like their plan. It's time to clean house, or better yet, admit defeat and pursue other means of reforming the health-insurance industry — like, say, turning it back over to the same private sector that Obama had to call this week for a rescue of his Big Government project failure.