October 22, 2013
In a White House speech, President Barack Obama assured the public that his new health-care law is up and running even in the absence of a functioning website. He told people they can call an 800 number instead of buying coverage online. Reporters duly called the number and got busy signals, or when getting through and following the directions, got referred back to healthcare.gov.
This, no doubt, is another “glitch,” the administration’s catchall word for the fact that it is almost impossible to enroll for insurance under Obamacare. It is a sign of just how bad it is that a new word has been added to describe the dysfunction, which is now occasionally referred to as “glitches and kinks.” If the website ever has to be abandoned entirely, the president and his spinners will surely maintain it was undone by “glitches, kinks, snags, bugs and hiccups.”
Euphemism aside, it must be dawning on the White House that it is presiding over a fiasco that not only threatens the viability of its health-care law, but President Obama’s central conceit that the mandarins of the administrative state are wise and capable enough to manage a large portion of our national life. They aren’t even wise and capable enough to develop a website when given three years and $400 million to do it.
The initial excuse for the failure of healthcare.gov was sheer volume, but only the molten core of the president’s loyalists still mouth this line. People whose job it is to successfully use the website have barely been able to successfully use the website. It took a CNN reporter a week to create a login and two weeks to proceed with her application. Healthcare.gov is worthy of a Joseph Heller novel.
Consumer Reports tried to give potential users some advice. First, follow very carefully the needlessly complicated instructions for creating a password that has at least seven characters and at least one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, one number and one symbol. Second, as soon as you encounter a problem logging on, start over, since you can’t believe what the error messages tell you. If you happen to make it through, keep a sharp eye out for an email confirming your account, or you’ll soon be timed out. Finally, when verifying your identity on the site, you may want to do it from a different browser than the one you registered from.
Got it? The publication’s bottom line: “Stay away from Healthcare.gov for at least another month if you can.”
Going old school isn’t much easier. Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View talked to a representative at an Obamacare call center who said you could fill out a paper form, but it would take three weeks for it to be sent to your house and, after you send it back, a couple of more weeks until you are notified of your eligibility for subsidies. The representative wasn’t clear on what happens next.
The Medicare and Medicaid agency running the healthcare.gov project took upon itself the overall tech management of it rather than handing that task off to a contractor. Managing a tech project of this size is not a core competency of government, but then again, neither is taking over the individual insurance market. Obamacare already risked creating a so-called adverse selection death spiral, i.e., sick people disproportionately signing up for the exchanges. The website increases the chances of it by deterring less motivated consumers from enrolling.
Presumably the administration can get the website to work eventually, although it will almost certainly be more difficult than the promise of a “tech surge” suggests. Once government has fouled up a project like this, it isn’t so easy to untangle. Britain undertook a program to upgrade the information technology of the National Health Service in 2002. Nine years and 6 billion pounds later, the government had to scrap the program entirely.
It must have run into a glitch.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.