It took only a few days after HealthCare.gov’s relaunch on November 30 for Obamacare apologists to declare victory and claim that critics of the law were in retreat.
“The hopelessness of the repeal campaign — the absence of a viable legislative vehicle, the turning tide of HealthCare.gov, the initiative of insurance benefits — is becoming clear to elected Republicans, and its dying embers will be fully extinguished by early next year,” wrote Brian Beutler, the political writer for Salon.
But despite all the hype proclaiming that the Obamacare website now works, many observers say it will be too soon to tell until two questions are answered.
First, is the website working better not just on the “front end” — the part where consumers input their data — but also on the “back end”? That’s the part that transmits the data to insurance companies so they can write accurate policies. Until now, error rates for the transmitted data have been extremely high, driving insurance companies into impotent fury.
The second question is whether insurance companies believe in the website enough to put their advertising money where their mouthpieces were before its launch on October 1. “The big tell of if/when people finally believe it’s working is when you see the states, insurance companies, etc., restart their ad buys and outreach programs that they put on hold to drive people to the site,” a Democratic observer of health-care issues told NBC’s First Read.
“Once it’s established that you can go from typing in the words ‘HealthCare.gov’ to getting a confirming e-mail saying you’re covered with reasonable ease, then I think you’re going to see a huge marketing boost to get people enrolled,” Sheryl Skolnick, managing director of investment analysis from CRT Capital, told Politico in late November. She said it would be a bad sign if insurers didn’t ramp up their marketing after November 30, “since we know they’re prepared to do so.”
I talked with several people in and close to the insurance industry who told me they see scant evidence that any “big rollout” of publicity directing people to Obamacare is under way or imminent. One insurance executive bluntly told me: “In addition to continued problems with the data, there is zero evidence they have fixed the security vulnerabilities of the website. We don’t want to send people to a site where their data could be compromised or stolen.” Indeed, David Kennedy, the founder and principal security consultant of TrustedSec, told CNBC in late November that “security wasn’t built into” the site. Last week, Kennedy told the Washington Free Beacon that “it doesn’t appear that any security fixes were done at all” during the recent relaunch.
As for the “back end” of the website, last month Henry Chao, the Medicare and Medicaid Services official in charge of the site, told Congress that “the accounting systems, the payment systems, they still need to be” created. That amounted to some 30 to 40 percent of the whole HealthCare.gov system. “It’s not built, let alone tested,” an insurance executive told the Washington Post last week.
No wonder insurance companies are hanging back with a wait-and-see attitude. Indeed, the most noteworthy ads they’ve run so far poke fun at Obamacare. After showing a series of medical mishaps, new ads by Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield say, “Things don’t always work like they’re supposed to. Good thing the government exchange website isn’t the only place to buy health insurance.”
Wellmark, which has 2 million insurance clients in Iowa and South Dakota and does not participate in the exchanges, says it’s simply explaining that people have somewhere to go if the website isn’t working. But the ads infuriated Democratic state senator Jack Hatch of Iowa: “They’ve said more about the Affordable Care Act in one advertisement than in seven years of health-care reform,” he told the Associated Press. “They’ve been so silent because they want it to fail. Now they realize it’s a competitor.”
In general, though, the insurance companies do want Obamacare to succeed. The law was written in large part to please them, and since its passage President Obama has bit his tongue and ended his demagogic attacks on their profits (which have recently hit record highs). Instead, the Obama administration is designing new ways to make side payments to insurers to defray the transition costs of Obamacare. Obamacare’s overlords will do just about anything to prevent insurance companies from publicly criticizing his law or trying to bail out of it.
So despite all the hype and spin about Obamacare’s “comeback,” the truth is that we will just have to wait and see. Even many Democrats remain cautious. Representative Peter Welch of Vermont, which is adopting a single-payer government health-care system at the state level, told reporters last week, “I don’t think you’re going to see Democrats — or anybody — claiming victory until there is an expression of satisfaction from consumers.”
No one says Obamacare can’t improve. But let’s wait until people with real skin in the game and inside knowledge of its workings — the insurance companies — are willing to further risk their frayed reputations and release the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve set aside for promoting the law. Until then, the “comeback” of Obamacare is wishful thinking — not reality.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.