Why Healthcare.gov Broke: Two Competing Story Lines

This weekend brought more than a modicum of clarity to what happened behind the scenes in the run-up to the Oct. 1 launch of Healthcare.gov.

In a devastating story, Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post dissected how politics trumped policy when it came to the Affordable Care Act. In two key paragraphs, they wrote:

Based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former administration officials and outsiders who worked alongside them, the project was hampered by the White House’s political sensitivity to Republican hatred of the law – sensitivity so intense that the president’s aides ordered that some work be slowed down or remain secret for fear of feeding the opposition. Inside the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the main agency responsible for the exchanges, there was no single administrator whose full-time job was to manage the project. Republicans also made clear they would block funding, while some outside IT companies that were hired to build the Web site, HealthCare.gov, performed poorly.

These interwoven strands ultimately caused the exchange not to be ready by its Oct. 1 start date. It was not ready even though, on the balmy Sunday evening of March 21, 2010, hours after the bill had been enacted, the president had stood on the Truman Balcony for a champagne toast with his weary staff and put them on notice: They needed to get started on carrying out the law the very next morning. It was not ready even though, for months beginning last spring, the president emphasized the exchange’s central importance during regular staff meetings to monitor progress. No matter which aspects of the sprawling law had been that day’s focus, the official said, Obama invariably ended the meeting the same way: “All of that is well and good, but if the Web site doesn’t work, nothing else matters.”

The Post also posted online a May 2010 letter written by David Cutler, a Harvard professor and health adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign, to Larry Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council. In it, Cutler wrote:

My general view is that the early implementation efforts are far short of what it will take to implement reform successfully. For health reform to be successful, the relevant people need a vision about health system transformation and the managerial ability to carry out that vision. The President has sketched out such a vision. However, I do not believe the relevant members of the Administration understand the President’s vision or have the capability to carry it out.

Another piece worth a read: “What’s Really Obstructing Obamacare? GOP Resisters,” by Michael Tomasky of Newsweek/Daily Beast. Tomasky writes that while media reports have focused on the problems of Healthcare.gov, not enough attention has been paid to the efforts by Republicans to obstruct the law. He wrote:

All across the country, Republican governors and insurance commissioners have actively and directly blocked efforts to make the law work. In August, the Obama administration announced that it had awarded contracts to 105 “navigators” to help guide people through their new predicaments and options. There were local health-care providers, community groups, Planned Parenthood outposts, and even business groups. Again- people and groups given the job, under an existing federal law, to help people understand that law.

What has happened, predictably, is that in at least 17 states where Republicans are in charge, a variety of roadblocks has been thrown in front of these folks. In Indiana, they were required to pay fees of $175. In Florida, which under Governor Rick Scott (who knows a thing or two about how to game the health-care system, you may recall) has been probably the most aggressive state of all here, the health department ruled that local public-health offices can’t have navigators on their premises (interesting, because local public health offices tend to be where uninsured people hang out). In West Virginia, Utah, Pennsylvania, and other states, grantees have said no thanks and returned the dough after statewide GOP elected officials started getting in their faces and asking lots of questions about how they operate and what they planned to do. Tennessee issued “emergency rules” requiring their employees to be fingerprinted and undergo background checks.

America, 2013: No background checks to buy assault weapons. But you damn well better not try to enroll someone in health care.

I suspect in the weeks ahead, we will see more reporting on both story lines: how the administration mismanaged the rollout of the law and how Republicans have tried to ensure its failure. But let’s not lose sight of consumers, whose lives will be directly affected by the act and what’s happening now.

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