“There’s a difference between book smart and street smart,” a frustrated White House staffer told me last week. He didn’t have to say any more. His meaning was clear. The Obama White House is filled with book smart people. It’s the street smart ones that are in short supply. And that was nowhere more obvious or painful than in the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov.
First, to put things in perspective. All tea-party jubilation to the contrary, troubles with the health care website do not mean Obamacare is not a good program. It’s no excuse for derailing, delaying or defunding it, no matter how many times House Republicans may try. The primary goal of Obamacare, providing access to health insurance to 41 million Americans who could never before access it or afford it, remains just as critical as it was three years ago. In fact, even before launch of healthcare.gov on Oct. 1, millions of Americans had already benefited from some aspects of the program, like parents being able to keep children on their own health plans until the age of 26.
Problems with the launch only meant that a broken website had to be fixed so that people could sign up and the program could work as intended. Finally, that repair job seems to be nearly complete. One million people visited the website on its first new day of operation, 29,000 actually enrolled and bought a plan. That’s far from the pace of sign-ups necessary to meet the administration’s goal of 7 million enrollees by March 1, but far better than the total of six people who reportedly signed up on Oct. 1.
There are still challenges, especially on the all-important “back end” of the website, which connects consumer information to insurance companies that actually issue the policies. But the good news is we have now turned the corner and can focus on the advantages of Obamacare and no longer just on problems encountered by consumers trying to sign up. Overnight, reporters are no longer equating difficulties on the health-care website with the “end of the Obama presidency.”
But still, you gotta admit: This mess should never have happened in the first place. Indeed, wasn’t it ironic that Dec. 1, the day the administration crowed about finally being able to handle 50,000 people on the website at any given time, was also the day before Cyber Monday, when retailers prepared to handle millions of online shoppers at the same time? And, whether it was Wal-Mart, Macy’s, ProFlowers, Best Buy or Amazon, you could bet those commercial websites were not going to crash. They’d been tested over and over again. Why? Because there was so much revenue at stake.
Well, there was even more at stake with the launch of healthcare.gov. Think about what was on the line: the first-time availability of health insurance to some 41 million Americans; public opinion of President Obama’s signature legislative achievement; the president’s own credibility; plus, most importantly, the public’s willingness to believe that government could ever be counted on again to get anything right. There was one more thing at stake, of course: midterm elections in 2014, when Democrats in Congress, many of whom were not crazy about Obamacare in the first place because it forced people to buy private health insurance with no public plan option, faced the risk of having to go out and defend its botched-up delivery – which was not exactly the kind of help they were counting on from the White House.
With all of that on the line, the big question remains: How could the administration possibly bungle it so badly? They had three years before launch to get it right. But those in charge obviously didn’t take it seriously enough. They put no system-wide director in charge; they ignored multiple red flags raised about possible problems with the launch; they failed to test the system fully and then launched it anyway.
No doubt, historians will someday cite the 2013 debut of Obamacare as one of America’s worst product launches, right up there with the 1958 Edsel and 1985’s “New Coke.” That full story’s yet to be written, but this much is already clear: We wouldn’t have had this problem if the administration’s health-care team, from the president on down, had not fallen asleep at the switch. What’s amazing is that nobody’s yet been fired.