President Obama, who usually prides himself on not getting ruffled by daily events, expressed unusual anger last week over the technological glitches that have plagued the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. He’s right to impose a sense of urgency on the efforts to fix and streamline HealthCare.gov, the website that serves the federally established health-insurance marketplaces. But if the site can’t be fully functional in time to allow a generous period for uninsured individuals to choose their plans, the administration should delay any penalties applied to those who don’t sign up.
Currently, those penalties are scheduled to go into effect in April, allowing three or four months for the federal government to get its site in order. But it must be fully right, with no errors, confusion, or glitches, before any individuals can be accused of dragging their feet on buying insurance. It’s now obvious that HealthCare.gov wasn’t well designed, doesn’t interact well with other sites, and can’t handle the necessary volume of traffic. It clearly didn’t receive the stress testing it should have before it was launched.
It speaks poorly of the administration that the unveiling of the president’s signature initiative has gone so badly. But vexing as the rollout has been, the problems with the website shouldn’t discredit the law itself. The website is a technological means to an end. It is not the end in and of itself. And it is, of course, fixable.
It’s worth noting that in the 14 states that set up their own exchanges — thus bypassing HealthCare.gov — the process has generally gone smoothly. Further, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit whose health care research is widely respected, has found that in most states, the prices for health coverage are affordable, especially when federal subsidies are factored in.
But this error-plagued episode should teach the president and his team a painful lesson about attention to details. The administration says the problems are now being worked on virtually around the clock. Still, if those problems persist too far into the winter, the administration should postpone both the enrollment deadline, which is currently March 31, and the penalties for failing to carry health-insurance coverage.
The administration is obviously reluctant to do anything that would delay the centerpiece of its program, particularly if doing so would make Obamacare more of an issue in the 2014 congressional elections. But simple fairness should dictate whether people have sufficient opportunity to sign up before any fines are applied.