Little did they know it, but Republicans fighting to defund or delay Obamacare had an ally in spirit in Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Her explanation for the Obamacare website is that she couldn’t possibly have been expected to make it work in the mere 3 1/2 years since the law passed. She told The Wall Street Journal that the website ideally needed five years of construction and one year of testing, and instead had only two years of construction and almost no testing.
That means with the proper development time, HealthCare.gov would have had a flawless launch ... on Oct 1, 2017. Had Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested a four-year delay in Obamacare as his fallback in the defunding fight, he would have been scorned as an unbending fanatic, although he might have been giving Sebelius the breathing room she needed.
Kathleen Sebelius is to the Obamacare rollout what Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was to the Hurricane Katrina response. She’s not saddled with a notoriously mockable vote of confidence from her boss (“heckuva job, Brownie”), but Brown was gone two weeks after the storm, whereas Sebelius looks ensconced for the grim duration of the effort to right HealthCare.gov.
In a more rational world, she would resign or be forced out. Instead, she’s the spokesperson for fixing the technological disaster that occurred on her watch. Sebelius told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta that HHS has “asked the contractors to bring their A-team to the table.” Apparently it spent several hundred million dollars on what she now considers the B- or C-team.
It wasn’t that Sebelius should have known that the website wouldn’t work; she knew it wouldn’t work, at least if a test done days before it launched was any indication. According to The Washington Post, the website was crashed by a few hundred users during the test. Insurers urged that the national rollout be delayed, but all other considerations fell before the imperative to get underway on Oct. 1.
Sebelius says she felt the fierce urgency of now. “There are people in this country who have waited decades for affordable health-care coverage,” she told CNN. Yet it does no good for anyone to rush out a website that doesn’t work.
The feel-good stories of HealthCare.gov are tales of superhuman perseverance. In her CNN interview, Sebelius cited Janice Baker, the first person to sign up in Delaware. It took Baker seven hours over 11 days; Delaware Health and Social Services officials celebrated when she made it through.
Baker’s experience is typical. Deborah Lielasus, featured in a promotional video for HealthCare.gov, took three days to sign up. Daniel McNaughton, a student tech whiz who appeared in another video, was one of two enrollees found by The Miami Herald in the entire state of Florida.
Sebelius minimizes the website as one small part of Obamacare, but it is central to the exchanges that are, in turn, central to the law. She says that there are three ways to sign up for insurance: through the website and also via the phone and paper applications. But the call centers depend on the website, and if paper were such an efficient alternative to online, Amazon.com would operate by postcard.
The bottom line is that a law sold on the promise that you can keep your insurance if you like it has almost certainly dumped, or is about to dump, more people off insurance than it has signed up. As insurers leave the individual market for the exchanges and bring their policies in compliance with Obamacare’s new rules, they drop their old individual policies en masse. If people who had been covered under them want to stay insured, they have to go to the nonfunctioning HealthCare.gov.
“I was optimistic that things would go smoothly,” Sebelius told Gupta of her feelings on Oct. 1. “I felt that the day had finally come.” It had, and she only needed a few more years to be ready.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.