Obamacare rollout: A pretty enormous mess

  • Article by: FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE: , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2013 - 2:30 PM

Myriad problems make a delay in the individual mandate a simple matter of fairness.

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Forms and a newspaper article are spread on a table as a representative of Marketplace Nebraska, a health insurance broker under the new Affordable Care Act, explains the health insurance enrollment process and the options that are available at a seminar at the Willa Cather Omaha Public Library in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. The new health care marketplace got off to a bumpy start on Tuesday, with computer problems that prevented Nebraska residents from signing up for insurance right away. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) ORG XMIT: MIN2013100414182239

 

If you’ve tried to sign up online for health coverage under the problem-plagued Obamacare exchange, our sympathies. Many people have tried to create accounts and shop for insurance under the new law. Few have succeeded. Those that have enrolled have found that the system is prone to mistakes. Some applications have been sent to the wrong insurance company.

Wait. It gets worse. Those who have managed to browse the marketplace have often been hit by sticker shock. Take Adam Weldzius, a nurse practitioner and single father from Carpentersville, Ill. He sought the same level of coverage on the exchange as he and his 7-year-old daughter have now, with the same insurer and the same network of doctors and hospitals. At best, Weldzius found, his monthly premium of $233 would more than double. If he chose a plan priced at the same level, the annual deductible would be $12,700, more than three times his current $3,500 deductible.

“I believe everybody should be able to have health insurance, but at the same time, I’m being penalized. And for what?” Weldzius asked. “For someone who’s always had insurance, who’s always taken care of myself, now I have to change my plan?”

Last spring, President Barack Obama said “there will still be, you know, glitches and bumps” in the rollout of the new system. But what we’re seeing now is no glitch or bump. There is a growing mountain of evidence that Obamacare has fundamental problems in design and implementation.

• Illinois officials boasted that insurance premiums here would be lower than expected. But the Tribune reported Sunday that 21 of the 22 lowest-priced plans offered for Cook County residents have whopping annual deductibles of more than $4,000 for an individual and $8,000 for family coverage. That’s much more than many families can afford to pay.

• The Obama administration delayed issuing major rules to set up the exchanges until after the 2012 presidential election and refused to push back the Oct. 1 launch date, lest Republicans take political advantage, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

• Sloppy design of the architecture of the computer system, not simply an overload of users, created the problems that are blocking people from applying online for coverage, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

“These are not glitches,” an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange told the Times. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’ ”

The Department of Health and Human Services under chief Obamacare cheerleader Kathleen Sebelius has had three years to develop this system. It has busted deadline after deadline, all the while promising that the system would be ready on Oct. 1. It has overpromised and underdelivered. The excuse? Demand was unexpectedly high, crashing servers. Unexpected? Americans have been bombarded with marketing campaigns and news stories and outreach efforts on behalf of Obamacare. And now Sebelius and Co. are shocked that people are logging in to ... buy insurance? Come on, Ms. Sebelius.

We encouraged a one-year delay in the law. We recognize that’s not going to happen. Obamacare is here. It’s time, though, for the Obama administration to level with Americans about what’s happening here. It’s time to stop blaming Republicans and start talking about what needs to change.

The administration can do one thing - apparently on its own - to spare many Americans. It can delay the requirement that everyone buy insurance by March 31 or pay a penalty. Federal officials already have granted a one-year reprieve to the mandate that most employers provide insurance to their workers or pay a penalty. The administration cut a sweet deal for Congress and its staffers, who will continue to get generous federal subsidies. It has allowed any number of carve-outs for special pleaders.

A delay in the individual mandate would not be a special favor to American consumers. It’s a matter of fairness.

A one-year hiatus would give everyone a chance to take a hard look at the pricing of these plans, to see if consumers could get more affordable options without sacrificing coverage.

There are more problems. People who have individual insurance coverage are finding that Obama’s oft-repeated promise - “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan” - is just not true. They are being told by insurers that their existing plans expire on Dec. 31 and they must choose new coverage. They’re learning that insurers managed to offer lower-cost plans by narrowing the networks of hospitals and doctors that are available or by upping the out-of-pocket expenses. Unless people are careful in selecting coverage, they may be surprised to find they have to pay much more for out-of-network care to go to their doctors or get treated at the best hospitals. Federal officials argue that they’ll work out the kinks in the system in plenty of time for people to sign up by Dec. 15 for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Yes, the techies might be able to work out the computer network problems by then. But that’s not a given.

The deeper problems of cost and coverage in Obamacare are going to require an admission by the administration that this government management of the health care market is extraordinarily complicated and will be very costly for many people. The law has to change.

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