It was the question to which, in their heart of hearts, even the president’s most loyal acolytes must have known the answer: “Obamacare launches soon. Will it be ready?”
As we have learned this week, it wasn’t ready — and it was never going to be. “If ever there was a website launch that was ‘too big to fail,’” Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher noted, “this was it. So, of course, it did.”
Nevertheless, the temptation that the administration must have felt to put on a brave face is politically understandable. Since it was first mooted back in 2007, Obamacare has been under incessant pressure from a Republican party whose members have contended almost to a man that the law is inherently unworkable and destined to be a catastrophe. Add to this the persistent problems and delays that the scheme has suffered and one can see why a respectable launch was deemed vital to the narrative. Better to count to three and pray than to announce yet another embarrassing — almost certainly illegal — postponement, was presumably the White House’s gamble.
For over a year, the administration managed to strike a confident figure in public, even as others were warning of grave trouble ahead. In July, a CNBC survey revealed that only 11 percent of American doctors expected the exchanges to open on time. This lack of faith was reflected by the nation’s health-insurance executives, 70 percent of whom answered
“no” when asked whether they believed the claim that “the states and/or the Federal government will be ready on October 1, 2013, to launch the new HIXs.” With both these expectations and the ongoing unpopularity of the law at their heels, Republicans kept their drums beating. Repeatedly, they asked for a delay of the mandate. Repeatedly, they were rebuffed.
Instead, the Obama administration insisted that all was well. Among the most bullish of the law’s apologists was Gary Cohen, head of the federal government’s Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight and the man tasked with the exchanges’ implementation. “Ten months from today, people will be signing up for health insurance,” Cohen promised in December of 2012, and thereafter he steadfastly refused to let reality intrude upon his fantasy. In January, Cohen assured the progressive advocacy group Families USA, “Yes, we will be ready.” In March, he upped the ante, establishing that he was “absolutely confident that every state will have an exchange that will be functioning and ready” by October 1. It was Cohen’s assurances that led President Obama to tell journalists in April that he had a “great team in place,” and that it was “pushing very hard to make sure that we’re hitting all the deadlines and the benchmarks.”
In the same month, the Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, confirmed to Congress that the government was “determined and on track to meet the October 1 deadline.” The passage of time only inflated Sebelius’s belief in her timetable, prompting her to promise a subsequent congressional panel that that she was “very confident that we will be successful . . . having marketplaces in every state around the country starting October 1.” The mood was apparently universal: In August, the Charlotte Observer quoted Marilyn Tavenner, an administrator at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, reiterating that “online enrollment tools will be ready October 1.” She did not say that some would be working; she did not say that experiences would be wildly various; she did not say that systems would be operating on life support.
As the deadline approached, the administration continued to make promises it must have known were not true, even as experts warned of impending chaos. “We’ll be open for business October 1,” an official nonchalantly told reporters at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in September, prompting the Huffington Post to observe, more in hope than certainty perhaps, that “the Obama administration has never wavered from its insistence that the health insurance exchanges would be operational on Oct. 1.” So taken up in the rhetoric was Mother Jones’s Erika Eichelberg that she went to so far as to question the entire premise of critics’ skepticism, telling her readers in July that the task of getting the exchanges ready was “no big thing.” “The insurance exchange roll-out,” Eichelberg wrote, pushing back against Fox News’s suggestion that the system wasn’t ready,
has been portrayed as a gargantuan task, requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate 50 separate exchanges, and craft an entirely new online marketplace. But the administration insists the infrastructure for signing all these people up already exists.
This is precisely the sort of magical thinking that pushed other progressives mindlessly to repeat the president’s peculiar claim that, because only 15 percent of people would be eligible to use the exchanges, the undertaking was not a serious one. In a piece titled “Why Obamacare Implementation Isn’t Actually A Disaster,” ThinkProgress happily quoted the president’s pronouncement that “all the implementation issues that are coming up are implementation issues related to that small group of people: 10 to 15 percent of Americans.”