Feature

White House promises Obamacare fix in a month

Kathleen Sebelius took responsibility for the technical problems that have plagued the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

What happened
President Obama’s top health official took responsibility this week for what she called the technological “debacle” that has plagued the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius blamed inadequate pre-launch testing for the website errors that have prevented people from signing up to the law’s exchanges. “Hold me accountable for the debacle,” she said. In hearings on Obamacare’s problems, House Republicans also grilled Sebelius over revelations that many of the 5 percent of Americans who buy their own insurance plans on the individual market will have to get new plans because of Obamacare rules (see News: Talking points). The news “seems to get worse by the day,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). “Americans are scared...and may be losing their faith in government.”

The White House pledged that the site would be fully functional by Nov. 30, with former budget official Jeff Zients overseeing technological repairs. The administration refused to say how many people had managed to enroll in health-care plans since the launch, though it said that 700,000 people had applied. Its goal was to enroll 7 million people in 2014, with a deadline of March 31 to apply for insurance. In a speech in Boston, President Obama admitted that implementing the complex law “is hard,” but pointed to the success of Massachusetts’s similar health-care reform, dubbed Romneycare. “Massachusetts has shown that the model works,” Obama said. “We are going to see this through.”

What the editorials said
“The problems with the website shouldn’t discredit the law itself,” said The Boston Globe. The glitches are fixable, and the 14 states that are more successfully running their own exchanges prove the system will work. But if the site isn’t error-free by December, “simple fairness” dictates the White House should delay penalties for those who don’t sign up in time.

The problems with Obamacare “aren’t ‘glitches,’” said The Wall Street Journal. They are the inevitable result of “political control of the health economy.” The bureaucrats in charge didn’t designate a single manager to oversee the 55 contractors building the site, and didn’t test it properly because they didn’t want to admit there might be problems. It’s exactly what those of us who opposed Obamacare predicted—and more chaos is coming.

What the columnists said
How did the administration screw this up so badly? asked Megan McArdle in Bloomberg.com. Insiders tell of a “near-total disconnect” between the policy-makers and the tech contractors. The policy wonks imagined “a Travelocity for health insurance,” and sent an unending series of complex demands to the tech folks. The tech folks subcontracted the demands out, but since no one person was in charge of the whole mess, they never knew whom to tell of their “growing sense of dread.” Sebelius should obviously be fired, said Kathleen Parker in The Washington Post.But the real blame for Obamacare lies with the arrogant guy who decided to overhaul “the entire health-care industry.”

“Yes, the administration deserves to be on the hot seat,” said Sally Kalson in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But Republicans are incredible hypocrites for whining about Obamacare’s failed introduction, since they did everything possible to sabotage it. Most Republican governors have refused to set up state exchanges, forcing the federal government to take on this burden. Republicans in Congress also blocked funding for contractors, and refused to let Sebelius move money around to make up for their obstruction, said Aaron Carroll in CNN.com. “Is it really a surprise then that implementation hasn’t gone smoothly?”

If HealthCare.gov really is running smoothly by Nov. 30, said -Jonathan Cohn in NewRepublic.com, “all the fuss about broken websites will become a historical footnote.” But if technical problems persist, the danger is that negative press coverage will scare off the younger, healthier people that the exchanges need in order to balance out older, sicker new customers. The White House could then fall short of its 2014 enrollment target by millions of people—and that would be “a seriously big deal.”

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