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Obamacare fail isn’t the site — it’s the law

Think tanks devote endless hours to analyzing “crisis response” — those moments when politicians collectively stare into the proverbial abyss. There is a spectrum of possible responses to any crisis: On one end is George Costanza from “Seinfeld,” who smells smoke at a birthday party and shoves aside children and grandmothers as he flees the room. On the other is Dan Aykroyd playing Julia Child, who treats a severed artery like a casual teaching moment, enthusiastically dispensing first-aid tips and cooking instructions — “Save the liver!” — until she gracefully passes out.

Obamacare is in crisis, but as the blood flows and the patient becomes ever more lightheaded, the president desperately pretends it's all intentional. As with Aykroyd's grisly "Saturday Night Live" sketch, we know it won't end well, but it's impossible to look away.

And as the president haplessly tries to reassure everyone that things will work out just fine, Democrats in Congress look more like George Costanza every day. Their problem is: Where's the door?

In early October, as things went sour, the White House tried to pass it all off as a simple computer glitch. Two months on, it is hard to overstate the magnitude of the failure. Three years and $600 million were spent creating a nonfunctional system that was never fully tested and has deep security flaws. With the Nov. 30 deadline for system repairs approaching, the Democrats' hope for a quick fix is fading as fast as their poll numbers. Last week Obamacare's technology chief admitted that up to 40 percent of the software still remained to be developed.

But a working website was never the real problem; it's the law itself — which, tragically, performs as designed. By setting unrealistically high coverage standards, Obamacare renders millions of insurance policies illegal. Since Oct. 1, about 100,000 have signed up for new coverage under the law, while nearly 5 million families have had their current plans canceled.


Simple economics tells us that nearly everyone dropped by their current insurer will see rate increases; if the law demands new features, those features will cost money. We also know that prices will increase for the younger, healthier purchasers who are expected to subsidize the older and less healthy. At Maryland's Bowie State College, 5,500 students lost coverage when their premiums rose more than 1,500 percent.


Then there's the example of Jessica Sanford, a single mother cited by President Obama in an October speech touting the laws' benefits. Unfortunately, those supposed benefits were as real as the commitment that "if you like your plan, you can keep it." Last week, Sanford told the press that she wouldn't enroll after all. The plans are too expensive, and she feels stuck in a "big treadmill of bureaucracy."

On Capitol Hill, this dramatic, widespread rate shock is causing real political panic, as the realization sinks in that a few lines of new computer code won't solve these problems. Our health care system is coming apart at the seams.

Confronted with millions losing coverage and facing price increases at the same time, the White House casually announced that it would now be just fine for insurers to sell those discontinued plans. Either Obama has no business sense, or he's being cynical. Insurers can't simply create, price, and market a product on a few weeks' notice. Far from resolving anything, the announcement was a concession of failure.

Trying to shift the blame to insurers may be worth rolling the dice to Obama, but it's high-stakes poker for his congressional allies. Democrats rammed the monstrous bill through on a straight party-line vote and subsequently have refused to consider a single legislative change. Now, with less than a year to go in the election cycle, they're on the hook politically — which is why vulnerable Democrats are now frantically introducing "fix Obamacare" bills.


Some, like a 90-day extension of the enrollment period, are meaningless. Others, like a permanent grandfathering of all current plans, are substantial. Yet grandfathering every plan is an admission that the standards never should have been enacted in the first place. Anyway, all these proposals are just political cover. If and when Harry Reid allows real votes to occur on the Senate floor, the stampede will begin — away from the mandates, away from the taxes, and away from Obamacare.

But where to? No one knows, but neither did George Costanza. As he ran for the door, the last person he shoved out of the way was a clown. When Democrats begin to bolt, the president may want to be out of town.

 For the record: My last column misidentified the winery whose advertisements featured Orson Welles. It was Paul Masson.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.