We are being told two seemingly contradictory things about the crash of the ObamaCare enrollment mechanism: It is a “glitch” detracting not a whit from the new benefit program itself but also a problem so serious that it would have required two more years of intensive work and untold millions more dollars to have prevented.
ObamaCare is more than a Web site, but the Web site is seemingly everything. How can it be both?
In a now-infamous interview with CNN before skipping town ahead of the start of congressional investigations, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that it would have been better if her agency would have had five years instead of three for building the Internet portal. The Internet is only 21 years old, so devoting nearly a quarter of its lifespan to the creation of one site sounds a bit excessive.
And we don’t know how many hundreds of millions of dollars were spent preparing for the rollout, but one assumes that taking into account hiring the “navigators” retained to steer people into the program, lots of advertising and the usual federal contract inflation on rush jobs, the total cost for the Oct. 1 debut was definitely a doozy.
Now Sebelius is on the lam, swinging by a gala in Boston before heading to the Southwest for a campaign swing on behalf of the law. But her defense for the epochal system error was the blinding, brutal complexity of it all. Listening to the talking points in testimony today from the contractors who built the Graf Zeppelin Healthcare.gov, the enormity and complexity is going to be the main defense. It was so big and so important that it just couldn’t be done correctly.
The president used to say that getting health insurance through the government online would be as easy as buying a new television or booking a flight to Dubuque. That all sounds funny now given how far the reality of his site is from commercial ones. But the discrepancy between the government health site and kayak.com is more than just the “Third-World experience” for users of the federal interface.
The difference, as Sebelius has hinted and as explained again and again by the contractors being bludgeoned by Republicans and Democrats alike today, is that this is way more than just picking a television or choosing aisle or window. This is merging and harnessing the power of the federal government as it relates to an individual’s heath care. A shopper comparing Sony versus Toshiba flat screens doesn’t need to bring the IRS and Centers for Medicare Services into play.
We’re not really talking about the consumer portal. We’re talking about the fusion of the federal mainframe. The president is right. ObamaCare is more than just a Web site. It is much, much more. Yes it is what he described: New regulations offset by new subsidies for big insurance companies. But it is also building a wholly new system for tracking you, your heath care, your finances and your life. It is a massive thing, especially for a government that doesn’t do technology very well.
Certainly the fact that the administration ordered the system be made more unwieldy by forcing shoppers to enter their personal data before shopping around suggests that someone knew that this was far more of a data harvesting and storage operation than a retail-style process.
It is pretty shocking that the Obama administration didn’t take better precautions given the magnitude of the task. Perhaps they deemed a successful launch impossible and opted to just plow ahead lest Republicans pounce on a delay amid the struggles ahead of the last fiscal cliff. But whatever mix of obtuseness, cynicism and calculation doesn’t really matter anymore. The thing has crashed, and done so spectacularly. ObamaCare will need a re-launch.
What that means is that wordplay from the White House that shifts the drop-dead date for enrollment to the end of March is just the first delay. The bulwark of the law is the requirement that people who can afford insurance but choose not to buy it will be forced to do so. Having already delayed the mandate for big businesses, fining individuals was always a politically stupid thing to do. Doing so after Sebelius and her team look about as tech savvy as the boys from “Weird Science” is an impossibility.
This is no glitch, and the pressure on Democrats is real.
Consider the canary in the Senate Democrat’s coal mine, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas. He expressed flat refusal to delaying the individual mandate just last week. This week, he said he backed a proposal to extend the enrollment period, delaying the drop-dead date for ObamaCare penalties. That was fast flip flopping, even by the standards of Washington. Imagine where he will be after another week of this debacle, especially as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and more moderate Democrats start edging toward full-year mandate delay.
Obama’s job now will be to hold the line. Extending the enrollment period is fine for him, since his goal is to get as many beneficiaries signed up as possible. And the penalty -- $95 or 1 percent of your household income – wouldn’t be levied until next year’s taxes are due. There’s plenty of time and another election to be held between now and April 2015. Plenty of time for fudging deadlines.
What Obama can’t have is a full-year delay or really any “delay” legislation on the Senate floor. With voters hugely supportive of the idea of a full-year delay for the whole shebang, this could quickly get away from the legislatively maladroit White House. And there’s the problem for Sebelius.
Her defense is that it’s such a big deal that no one could have been ready in just three years and with a cost of more than $300 million. But if that’s the case, it can’t be just a glitch that can be handled with a semantic fix at the White House. And if anything has her in jeopardy of being the fall gal for ObamaCare, it is that irreducible conflict.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. His Power Play column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays at FoxNews.com. Catch Chris live online weekdays at 11:30 am ET. Read his “Fox News First” newsletter published each weekday morning. Sign up here.