Politics & Policy

Reality Check for HealthCare.gov

Screen shot of www.healthcare.gov
Even an administration that refuses to answer questions can’t keep the facts hidden forever.

Turkey’s autocratic prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last made international news in June when he brutally suppressed street protests against his rule, can’t understand why Obamacare has any critics. “It’s such a beautiful step, and, to tell the truth, Mr. Obama should be supported,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “There are those who say: ‘You cannot spend my earnings on others.’ Now, how is this possible?”

Well, for starters, a lot of people would like to know how the federal government showered $634 million on a host of IT contractors to build HealthCare.gov, a website that has had the worst debut of any product since New Coke. The site is supposed to provide a menu of insurance plans for Americans in the 36 states without their own site. Instead, it has become a black box — the few applications insurance companies have managed to receive from it are glitch-filled and error-riddled, the insurers say.

President Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have both said that the problems were caused by the site’s popularity — the system was overloaded by too many users eager to sign up. But in the two weeks following its October 1 launch, the number of visitors to HealthCare.gov dropped by 88 percent, based on the findings of the Millward Brown Digital research firm. The site has been taken down at least twice for “fixes.” 

#ad#“The White House has yet to release its own explanation of what happened,” according to Paul Ford, a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. “So we don’t know what went wrong; we don’t know how it was built.”

That secrecy has prompted Representative Fred Upton, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to publicly call on Secretary Sebelius to appear before his committee this Thursday to answer questions. Not only is she refusing to appear herself, but she’s also declining to send lower-level officials. And CNN’s Erin Burnett reported that Sebelius, who says she’s too busy to answer Congress’s questions on Thursday, has carved out time to attend the Kennedy Forum gala in Boston the night before the hearing.

Sebelius is also finding time to attend “happy talk” events promoting HealthCare.gov. The only problem is that at the last two she attended, in Florida and in Pittsburgh, the site once again didn’t work. The Wall Street Journal reported from Pittsburgh: “Uninsured residents . . . tried to sign up on laptops brought in for the special event. But the system was down.”

“Top administration officials repeatedly testified everything was on track, but the broad technological failures reveal that was not the case,” Chairman Upton said in a statement. “The president and top officials were quick to boast the number of visitors to HealthCare.gov, but they have since gone silent.”

One reason for the silence may be that the story of how the website was designed — and bungled — is just too awful. The Washington Examiner has reported that “rather than open the contracting process to a competitive public solicitation with multiple bidders, officials in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid accepted a sole bidder, CGI Federal, the U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian company with an uneven record of IT pricing and contract performance.” In fact, a full 13 months ago, the Canadian province of Ontario fired CGI for failing to deliver on time a new online medical registry. But that apparently raised no alarm bells back in Washington.

Barack Obama vowed in 2008 that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” In reality, he has treated transparency as if it were kryptonite. ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton calls Obama “the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.” Josh Gerstein, who covers the White House for Politico, has concluded that “if the story is basically one that they don’t want to come out, they won’t even give you the basic facts.”

Well, here’s a basic fact. If HealthCare.gov isn’t fixed quickly, it will run up against something called a reality check. On January 1, all Americans will be required by law to have health insurance. The deadline to apply for health coverage — and avoid paying a penalty of up to 1 percent of income — is February 15. This is not the same deadline as that marking the end of the open-enrollment period, which is March 31. So you could enroll after February 15, but you would pay the penalty. As Politico dryly noted last week: “This quirk, unearthed by industry observers, appears to have gone previously unnoticed by the administration. ‘The IRS didn’t know that,’ said Jackson Hewitt Vice President Brian Haile, who recently brought the issue to the administration’s attention.”

If the meltdowns at HealthCare.gov aren’t fixed soon, the delay in implementing that mandate — a delay that President Obama refused to even contemplate during the government shutdown — may become a necessity for him. Bruce Webster, an expert on information technology and consultant to dozens of companies, told me:

I honestly believe that at some point soon, the government is going to have to shut down the Apply Now section of HealthCare.gov for a period of weeks and possibly even longer. I think there’s at least a 50-50 chance that it may not reopen until January [or later], and that President Obama will “waive” the individual mandate for six months or even a full year.

If that’s true, there’s one thing you can count on. The Obama administration will keep on not answering questions about Obamacare, claim that everything is “on track,” and deny that any such move is possible — up until the very day they announce something different.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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