Obamacare rollout is reason for worry

Two weeks after health exchanges went online for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, the federal computer system that allows people to shop for and purchase health insurance remains an unmitigated disaster.

Don’t take our word for it. Here is Washington Post columnist and reliable Obama supporter Ezra Klein, commenting over the weekend:

“The way this is going on is a disaster. I really don’t think people should soft-pedal what a bad launch this has been ... We’re a couple weeks in now and people can’t sign up, people have tried 20, 30, 40 times.”

And Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary from 2009 through 2011, told MSNBC Monday he hopes those in charge of setting up the federal website will be fired.

“This is excruciatingly embarrassing for the White House and for the Department of Health and Human Services,” Gibbs said, adding that the launch had been “bungled badly.”

Gibbs also disputed the claim from the administration that the problems are all due to the large number of people who have tried to log onto the system in its first two weeks of operation. “This is not a server problem like, right, just too many people came to the website,” he said. “This is a website architecture problem.”

Klein and Gibbs are far from alone. Top insurance executives, computer experts and politicians of both parties have all expressed their frustration with the federal system and fears that more glitches are on the way.

Colorado has its own system


Consumers in 36 states must rely on the federal health exchange and its dysfunctional computer system because their state governments declined to establish their own health care exchanges.

But people in the other 14 states, including Colorado, have generally fared better, even if there were some initial glitches.

In Colorado, during the first week that the Connect for Health Colorado website was up and running, some 18,000 had created online accounts to begin shopping for health insurance, according to information reported Monday by the Associated Press. However, only 226 people had actually purchased insurance.

Although the individual insurance mandate nominally takes effect in January, people who don’t have insurance actually have until March to get it through the exchanges, and Colorado officials say they believe they are on track to get 136,000 Coloradans signed up by the end of next year.


Other states doing better


An analysis by Forbes magazine estimated that through Monday, some 42,000 people had signed up for insurance in the 14 states with their own exchanges. More than half of those — almost 25,000 — were in Washington state, the magazine said.

California and Kentucky are also among the states seeing relatively high numbers of enrollees.

Contrast that with the number of enrollees in the 36 states that are using the federal health exchange and its malfunctioning computer system.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have signed up using the federal system because the Department of Health and Human Services has so far refused to release any figures. But a health industry analyst quoted by Forbes surveyed insurance companies across the country and concluded “not more than 5,000 individuals and families” had purchased plans through the federal exchange as of last week.

Of course, based on the repeated reports of problems with the system — of people having to wait for hours to connect or of trying 30 or 40 times — those who successfully purchased plans through the federal exchange must have displayed unusual tenacity. How many more will show such persistence if the problems aren’t corrected soon?

Critics of Obamacare have long argued that it is a train wreck waiting to happen. Given how badly mishandled the launch of the program has been, the American public has good reason to worry if those critics are correct.


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With the current “shutdown” and “debt limit” crises apparently (but only temporarily) winding down, the Sentinel deserves kudos for its timely, objective, and appropriate editorial (“Obamacare rollout is reason for worry”) – which properly redirects popular focus onto what seems to be the “excrutiatingly embarrassing” rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s (“ACA”) long-awaited on-line health insurance exchanges.

As a former executive charged with overseeing the development and implementation of complex computer software for an international business – and as an ardent supporter of the public policy underlying “ObamaCare” – I am both mystified and chagrined by the mounting evidence of abject incompetence (or, possibly, deliberate sabotage). 

Unfortunately, this inexcusable experience is not unique.  Coloradans should remember the long-running problems with the “Colorado Benefits Management System”, and may recall similar defects in Census 2010’s information technology systems—which required reversion to paper-based “enumeration”.  A common denominator is failure to finalize specifications soon enough to permit coherent software design and rigorous code testing.

The ACA also fell victim to the Obama Administration’s reluctance to employ the same whiz-kids who contributed to his re-election success – fearing charges of cronyism, and its decision to divvy-up the work between “lowest bid” contractors and in-house staff.

However, the fact that state-run exchanges are doing better than federal exchanges lends credence to the conservative philosophy underlying ObamaCare – which sought to apply principles of “federalism” to makes states responsible for their own citizens’ health insurance options.

Undoubtedly, the fact that 26 states refused to cooperate with the ACA—and Secretary Sebelius’ Department of Health and Human Services unexpectedly became responsible for 36 state exchanges – was also a contributing factor.  Nevertheless, Massachusetts’s systems have operated well for years, and should have afforded a replicable template.

Therefore, it’s time for Congressional oversight committees to investigate problems with ACA’s federally-designed insurance exchanges.

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