At last, something everyone can agree on: The federal website set up to enroll customers in the Affordable Care Act’s private insurance exchanges flat-out doesn’t work. It’s a debacle and an embarrassment to a president whose legacy will be defined largely by his signature law.
As usual, the rest of the story is divisive.
The law’s opponents see this as a chance to say they told us so. In their telling, the failed rollout of this key part of the law is a symptom of the larger effort’s overreach.
Its supporters are frustrated that the site wasn’t ready to accept applications on Oct. 1, but they still find the law sound.
They’ve got a point. A website, even one as important as this, is a tool. It’s not an idea. Enabling customers to sign up for insurance using the site is a process. It’s not a policy.
The idea behind the ACA, borrowed from a conservative think tank and first enacted by the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee in Massachusetts, is that everyone, regardless of employment status or preexisting conditions, should be able to buy insurance they can afford, in many cases with government subsidies.
The way to keep prices from skyrocketing, the argument goes, is to bring younger, healthier people into the pool by mandating that they get coverage or pay a penalty. Broader coverage, in turn, protects the system from having to absorb the cost of treating uninsured patients and protects individuals, including those young, healthy adults, from losing everything in case of catastrophe.
Now, obviously, the delay in signing people up affects the policy.
Sen, Mary Landrieu, D-La., an ACA supporter who faces a challenge next year from Obamacare critic Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, is calling for the open enrollment period to be extended, an entirely reasonable request given the circumstances.
Far trickier for Democrats is the question of whether the mandate to buy should be delayed too, because the new system’s overall bottom line relies on getting those less expensive customers into the system to balance out those whose care costs more. Obama has already delayed a separate mandate on businesses, making his reluctance to extend the courtesy politically difficult.
Yet if Republicans hope to use this episode to torpedo the whole thing, there are some things they should keep in mind.
While initial reports that the website was merely plagued by too much traffic proved laughable, the fact is that millions of people tried to start shopping as soon as they could.
Although few have successfully signed up to date, the demand hasn’t gone away.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, told reporters this week that he spent two hours on the site, got kicked off repeatedly and couldn’t get to a price quote. So yes, he’s right that it’s a “national embarrassment.”
If Scalise was frustrated, imagine how much worse that experience would have been for someone who genuinely wants, and needs, the coverage Obamacare offers.
Actually, if Republicans had wanted to make a real partisan point, the insurance exchanges offered them a golden opportunity.
Patients in many states were forced to go through the national system — what GOP Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, has sneeringly referred to as “Louisiana’s Washington-run exchange” — because their own governors refused to set up state exchanges.
Of course, it’s an article of faith among Republicans that states are more functional than the federal government, and nobody touts that idea more aggressively than Gov. Bobby Jindal. But sadly, Jindal and like-minded GOP governors passed up the chance to show the feds how it’s done — as states that set up their own exchanges are already doing — all in the name of distancing themselves from the president’s agenda.
More sadly still, they blew their chance to help their constituents access better health coverage in the process.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.