The disastrous October 1 launch of Healthcare.gov surprised even those of us who expected Obamacare to fail. The economics of the law are impossible, but who’d have thought just building a functional computer system would prove an insurmountable challenge?
As it turns out, Henry Chao, the project’s “chief digital architect,” had grave doubts months earlier. The New York Times reported on October 13 that in March, Chao “told industry executives that he was deeply worried about the Web site’s debut. ‘Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience,’ he told them.”
The Times story, written by Robert Pear, Sharon LaFraniere, and Ian Austen, was titled “From the Start, Signs of Trouble at Health Portal.” It turns out the reporters, like Chao, were aware of the impending problems long before October 1:
By early this year, people inside and outside the federal bureaucracy were raising red flags. “We foresee a train wreck,” an insurance executive working on information technology said in a February interview. “We don’t have the I.T. specifications. The level of angst in health plans is growing by leaps and bounds. The political people in the administration do not understand how far behind they are.”
The story doesn’t explain, nor would one expect it to, why the Times passed up a scoop and waited to report on the impending disaster until it impended no more. But it does give some insight into why the Obama administration was unprepared:
Politics made things worse. To avoid giving ammunition to Republicans opposed to the project, the administration put off issuing several major rules until after last November’s elections.…The stakes rose even higher when Congressional opponents forced a government shutdown in the latest fight over the health care law, which will require most Americans to have health insurance. Administration officials dug in their heels, repeatedly insisting that the project was on track despite evidence to the contrary.
Two weeks later another Times story, this one by Michael Shear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, reported that in the final days of September, “top White House officials were excitedly briefing lawmakers, reporters, Capitol Hill staff members and Washington pundits” about the “shiny new Web site that was elegantly designed, simple to use and ready.”
One Democratic operative defended this campaign of disinformation, even in retrospect. “To downplay expectations would have fed into the Republican narrative,” Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told the Times, which characterized his comment as an argument that “the White House was right to deliver upbeat presentations promoting” the site.
Might that also explain why the Times sat on the story all those months? Certainly it explains why liberal pundits seemed caught by surprise when the launch went wrong. Slate.com’s Matthew Yglesias predicted in July that “Obamacare implementation is going to be a huge political success.” Claiming that “the media, for non-ideological reasons, is just massively biased toward negativity about this kind of thing,” Yglesias reassured liberal readers that “a lot of this criticism comes in the form of comparing the reality of the ACA [Affordable Care Act] to an abstract idealized system rather than comparing it to the status quo.” By October 21, Yglesias was reduced to a defensive plaint: “HealthCare.gov’s Problems Don’t Discredit liberalism.”
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, another erstwhile Obamacare cheerleader, was relatively candid in his assessment after the failed launch—surprising from the young man who founded Journolist to propagate liberal talking points (see Presswatch, TAS, October 2010). “So far, the Affordable Care Act’s launch has been a failure,” he acknowledged October 14. “Not ‘troubled.’ Not ‘glitchy.’ A failure.” He owned up to his own failure to get the story the previous month:
In the weeks leading up to the launch I heard some very ugly things about how the system was performing when transferring data to insurers—a necessary step if people are actually going to get insurance. I tried hard to pin the rumors down, but I could never quite nail the story, and there was a wall of official denials from the Obama administration. It was just testing, they said. They were fixing the bugs day by day.
Klein’s relative honesty put him at odds with Salon.com’s Joan Walsh, who in an October 21 piece inveighed against “liberal hand-wringing” over Obamacare’s failures:
Robert Frost famously said “a liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” That very quality has encouraged the extremism of the modern GOP, culminating in the hostage-taking and extortion we saw this month.
Walsh would brook no criticism of Obamacare except an ideological one from the left:
[The technical troubles are] enough to make those of us who wanted a single-payer system say, “I told you so.” All the biggest problems with the ACA have to do with its commitment to working mostly through the existing patchwork of private insurance programs. That’s also the only way it could have gotten through Congress in 2010, though, so saying I told you so is satisfying but politically irrelevant.
Walsh’s call for liberal pundits to do their duty as apparatchiks was too much even for former Enron adviser Paul Krugman, who in an October 26 Times blog post counted himself “among those who believe that liberals best serve their own cause by admitting” the “botched rollout” rather than “trying to cover for the botch.”
But Krugman tried to cover for it anyway. “Yes, Obamacare is a somewhat awkward kludge, but if that’s what it took to cover the uninsured, so be it,” he wrote in the same post. “The odds remain high that this will work, and make America a much better place.”
Yglesias, too, managed to fend off reality after engaging in an ever-so-coy flirtation with it. “Healthcare.gov is a disaster,” he wrote October 22, but “Obamacare is just fine”:
You can apply for Obamacare coverage by phone, you can do it in person, and you can do it by mail. Even if the website literally never works, that won’t make the program unworkable any more than the absence of a great website made Medicare unworkable in the 1960s and ’70s.
There are two problems here. First, as Politico reported October 25, phone and paper applications “have to get entered into the same lousy website that is causing the problems in the first place. And the people processing the paper and calls don’t have any cyber secret passage to duck around that. They too have to deal with all the frustrations of HealthCare.gov—full-time.”
Second, the economics of Obamacare cannot work unless large numbers of young, healthy people sign up to pay inflated premiums and thereby subsidize those whose preexisting conditions make insuring them a money-losing proposition. It was always dubious to suppose the young could be induced to buy insurance by jacking up the price. Today’s young adults are accustomed to doing business on the Web and are likely to have less patience than their elders with antiquated phone and paper applications.
Liberal journalists’ discomfiture with Obamacare’s failure is easy to understand. The “Republican narrative” seems to be coming true. But what does it say about journalists when a partisan “narrative” is more reliably truthful than their work?