US President Barack Obama may have won the battle of the budget (for now), but Obamacare still ignites political passions like no other piece of legislation in present-day Washington. It was never meant to be that way. The opposite is true: Obamacare, as is it widely known, is supposed to be Obama’s signature legislative achievement, something many of his predecessors since Teddy Roosevelt more than hundred years ago have in vain tried to accomplish: a European-style health care law that covers almost the entire population. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, as it is officially known, in 2009 against furious opposition of Republicans who still believe that Obamacare is, well, European-style and therefore something coming out of the Marxist-Socialist toolbox.
The recent government shutdown and political brinkmanship over the country’s borrowing authority was based almost entirely on right-wing Republicans’ belief that Obamacare, as Texas Senator Ted Cruz puts it, “is destroying America.” Cruz has rarely given Americans an example of why it does. That’s because the best he can do is exploit people’s ignorance and falsely point to imaginary boogeymen. His crusade in Congress largely failed, because his fellow mainstream Republicans were not ready to risk an economic meltdown over the health care law.
But that doesn’t mean that Obamacare is off the hook. Now the law is in self-made technical trouble that makes the administration look amateurish at best. How is that possible? To answer that, Europeans need to take a closer look at what the health care law is all about.
Obamacare aims to increase the quality and affordability of health insurance, lower the uninsured rate by expanding public and private insurance coverage, and reduce the costs of healthcare for individuals and the government. It provides a number of mechanisms – including mandates, subsidies, and insurance exchanges – to increase coverage and affordability. The law also requires insurance companies to cover all applicants within new minimum standards and offer the same rates regardless of pre-existing conditions or sex.
On October 1, an important part of the law was rolled out, when the “insurance exchanges”, basically online marketplaces, started their operations. Well, they did not. The official website www.HealthCare.gov was unable to manage the unexpected run on the exchanges by millions of visitors who wanted to purchase insurances or just compare prices. The result: the system crashed. But what was officially called “glitches” at the beginning turned out to be serious software problems that will probably take a long time to fix. On Monday, President Obama voiced his frustration with the situation, vowing the government is “doing everything we can possibly do” to repair the site, including a 24-hour work from “some of the best IT talent in the country”. At another occasion he compared it to problems smartphone giant Apple had experienced while rolling out new products. “Did anybody ask Apple to close the company?”, Obama asked rhetorically.
On Tuesday, the situation got worse for Obamacare advocates when the Washington Post reported that the administration was well aware of the technical problems before October 1, thus challenging the official narrative that the website was overwhelmed by an unanticipated volume of traffic. According to the Post, days before the launch of the website, government officials and contractors tested a key part of the site to see whether it could handle tens of thousands of consumers at the same time. The result: “It crashed after a simulation in which just a few hundred people tried to log on simultaneously.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney in his Tuesday briefing tried to stay on message by putting some spin on the issue. He suggested that the trouble on the website “pales in comparison” to the situation in which families had no health insurance for many years. But the question remains why the US government launched the president’s signature legislative achievement with a computer program that was unable to handle only a fraction of the number of visitors Google and Amazon handle every day. Ironically, the day Obama spoke in defense of the law and acknowledged the website mess, Americans could read in the papers that the US government used highly sophisticated super-computers to spy on millions of individuals in France alone…
More than three weeks after the roll-out of the insurance exchanges, the administration is still struggling with a home-made embarrassment, to put it mildly. That will certainly not restore confidence in Obamacare, but will certainly fuel additional Republican attacks on the health care law in the near future.